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Review: Canon PowerShot SX150 IS

Written: Dec. 8, 2012, 11:30 a.m.

Copyright © 2012 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Updated 2014.05.17

All images in this entry are Copyright © 2012 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.
All example photos are unedited, straight out of the camera.

Introduction

Canon PowerShot SX150 IS My wife and I chose the Canon PowerShot SX150 IS primarily because it was 50% off the regular price. I recieved it Dec. 5, 2012. We always like to have a compact "point-and-shoot" digital camera around, for those times when it's prohibited or inconvenient to carry a larger, more professional looking DSLR. Our previous point-and-shoot cameras have been of the Nikon Coolpix variety, but the last two quit working right after the manufacturer's warranty expired.

UPDATE, Oct. 19, 2013

This camera quit working after a little more than 10 months of use. The lens wouldn't retract or extend, leaving it only partially closed and therefore unusable.


Specifications

It has a 14.1-megapixel (4320 x 3240) sensor that measures 6.17mm x 4.55mm — about eight percent of the surface area of a traditional DSLR, and about three percent of the surface area of a "full-frame" DSLR. Unlike many compacts, the SX150 has manual shooting modes including M, Av, Tv, and P, as well as a handful of automatic modes.

Other Views:
Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (right)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (back)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (back)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (top)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (left)
Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (front)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (front)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (front)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (front)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (front)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (front)
Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (top)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (battery door)Canon PowerShot SX150 IS (bottom)

In any of the manual modes, you can set the ISO to your choice of Auto, 80 ,100, 200, 400, 800, or 1600. Image stabilization ("IS") is feature on this camera as well.

The lens is a 5-60mm Canon zoom lens, commonly listed as "12x" or "28-336mm equivalent". The maximum aperture is f/3.4 at the wide end and f/5.6 at the long end. Manual focus is available, but only through the camera's menu (no focus ring).

Shutter speeds can be set from 15 seconds to 1/2500 sec.

There's no hot shoe. The built-in flash is manually operated (does not popup of its own accord).

It's powered by two AA batteries, either alkaline (included) or rechargeable batteries of your choice (I chose Sanyo Eneloop batteries, since I already own several).


Negative Reviews

The Canon PowerShot SX150 IS didn't get many negative reviews, but there were a few, particularly on shopping sites like Amazon (here). One of the major complaints was "It eats batteries." One reviewer said: "2 brand new Energizer Lithium AA batteries are good for only 20 pictures or so" (he later admitted he'd taken several videos as well). Another said: "I tried a third set of AAs, rechargeables this time, and the battery lasted me 20 minutes once more." (It should be noted that many of the negative reviews came from people who couldn't spell "Canon" or "batteries".)

This was not my experience. As I noted above, I use Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries for anything that takes AA batteries. The first two I put in the camera lasted about two weeks, and recorded 205 images (several with flash) and four short videos before I saw a low battery warning. I zoomed, changed settings, and looked at every single menu option. I used playback mode to view the images on the camera's LCD screen, and I watched the videos.

Several negative reviews mentioned that the flash took a long time to recharge. One person said "6-7 seconds". When I tested the camera, the flash charged for as long as 1 second; never longer, even if I'd just used it.

One reviewer noted: "Bulkier, heavier than every other camera". This clearly isn't true, but it's not the smallest or lightest compact camera. It's larger than the last two Nikon Coolpix units we've had. The SX150 didn't fit in the nylon carrying case we'd bought for our Nikons. It did fit in the slightly larger accessory pouch I'd bought for some wireless flash triggers. After using DSLRs for the past seven years, the SX150 feels very tiny and delicate in my hands.

Many complained about: "The flash didn't fire automatically in auto mode". That's actually a big plus for me. It's one of the features that convinced me to buy this camera.

UPDATE, Oct. 19, 2013

None of the negative reviews mentioned its longevity, perhaps because people write reviews right after purchase and don't return to edit them later. This camera quit working after less than 11 months of use.


High ISO Performance

Up through ISO800, this camera performs acceptably:

First Day With SX150 IS
Larger Version

When I went higher, to ISO1600, the grain/noise was nearly unbearable (example image), but it's nice to have the option in case the scene is dark. I was a little disappointed that it didn't have ISO3200 (our last Coolpix did). At all other ISO levels, the image quality looked fine to me, and perfectly usable.


Flash Photography

As noted briefly above, the pop-up flash is actually a flip-up flash — it doesn't pop up on its own, you have to flip it up if you want to use it, even in the auto modes. This comes in handy for the many venues where flash photography is prohibited. So many point-and-shoot cameras make it very difficult and menu-intensive to disable the flash; with the SX150, you just leave it down if you're in a museum.

If shooting in Auto modes, though, the screen will tell you to "raise the flash" if the camera thinks the scene is too dark. If you don't raise the flash, it'll take a picture anyway. In the manual modes (M, Av, Tv, P), the camera lets you decide when to use the flash. When you do use the flash, it overexposes noticeably, especially foreground elements.

First Day With SX150 IS
Full auto, with flash raised

In manual modes, of course, you can adjust exposure as necessary to counteract the brightness of the flash.


Indoor Photos

As with any camera, low-light photography is difficult at best. One consistent complaint among beginner photographers, regardless of the camera they choose, is that it's difficult to get good photos in low light situations — indoors, at dusk, etc. Some cameras are better than others at high-ISO noise handling, some are better at choosing the correct flash power, and some have lenses with wider apertures (to let in more light).

The SX150 is none of those. The ISO handling is poor above 800, the lens' maximum aperture is f/3.4 (and smaller if you zoom), and the flash — as shown above — tends to overexpose, washing out the main subject. It'll record the scene indoors, but it won't be a masterpiece.

If your subject is non-moving, then mount this baby on a tripod (it has a standard socket) and use a long exposure. If your subject is moving, learn to love the blur, or get a different camera.

In a few circumstances I was able to get decent photos indoors because the image stabilization (IS) on this camera is pretty effective. The following image was from about 10 feet away from the wine glasses, fully zoomed in. I was using Av mode, but set the ISO to "auto". Based on the available light, the camera chose ISO400 and a shutter speed of 1/10 sec. If you know anything at all about photography, you know that you can't get a steady shot at 1/10 sec. when handholding, especially at full zoom. The IS is what kept that shot steady; it certainly wasn't my shaky hands.

First Day With SX150 IS
Aperture priority, full zoom


Outdoor Photos

Outdoors is where this camera really shines (but don't they all?) Here's a "macro" (actually, closeup) image of the corner of our back porch:

First Day With SX150 IS
Macro focusing mode

And a closeup photo of the St. Augustine grass that's not doing so well in our drought.

First Day With SX150 IS
Macro focusing mode

Most cameras have a lot of trouble metering correctly if part of the image is shaded and part of the image is in bright sunlight. I felt that the SX150 almost always made the right decision (the foreground grass is heavily backlit by the afternoon sun):

First Day With SX150 IS

Also, I was able to test the zoom outdoors. The following two images were taken from the same spot on our back porch, looking approximately west toward our back fence.

First Day With SX150 IS
5mm (28mm equivalent)

First Day With SX150 IS
60mm (336mm equivalent)

Note: The "equivalent" focal lengths are an attempt to equate the field of view to what you'd have seen in a 35mm film camera, or in a "full-frame" digital SLR. But most of us who own DSLRs actually use cropped sensor versions, either 1.6x (Canon) or 1.5x (Nikon). So the 5-60mm zoom lens on this compact camera is actually equivalent to what I'd normally see at 18-210mm on my Canon EOS 60D (or any of the digital Rebels). For a Nikon crop-sensor user, the equivalent field of view would come from a 19-224mm lens.


Colors

I was very happy with the color rendition (white balance) of this camera, whether indoors or outdoors. White balance is something I've always struggled with, both in compact cameras and in DSLRs. See the image of the candle above; that's very accurate color, especially indoors.


Focusing Issues

Both indoors and outdoors, this camera focused very well. Like all digital cameras that I've used, it looks for areas of contrast. The more contrast the better, for auto-focusing. Knowing this can help you frame your shot.

In Auto mode, the camera's focus point moves around on screen and decides what to focus on. It's actually pretty good at deciding correctly. In manual modes, the focus point defaults to the center, as it should, but you can move it if you want. You can also use manual focus, via the camera's menu.

Many cameras, even DSLRs will have trouble focusing in certain situations, such as a blank white wall, or in very low light. But I was surprised that the SX150 had trouble focusing on a partly cloudy sky. And several times, when taking photos of a moving toddler outdoors, the camera focused on a house several hundred yards away instead of the subject in the center of the frame.

Missed Focus

In retrospect, this example image might have fooled a DSLR as well. The arm and shovel were moving across the center focus point, while the houses were staying in one spot with their clean lines and high contrast from the setting sun. But the following image had enough contrast in the sky (I thought) for normal autofocus to work:

Sky

Instead, I had to focus on the horizon and hold that focus as I recomposed the image.

However, most of the time (I'd guess 80-85%) the camera focused correctly.


Macro

In "macro" mode, the camera can focus very, very closely, but only at the wide end of the zoom range. If you zoom in, it can't focus closely at all, in any mode. The minimum focus distance in my tests was something like five or six feet when fully zoomed in.

Ignore any specifications you see which state this camera's minimum focus distance (MFD) is "1cm" (0.39 inches) In photography, the MFD is supposed to be measured from the subject to the recording surface (in this case, the sensor). So 1cm would put the MFD inside the lens of this camera, which doesn't make any sense. In my tests, the MFD of this camera, in macro mode and wide angle was actually something like two inches, which is the distance from the sensor to the end of the lens.

In the test image below, the ruler was actually touching the end of the lens casing. The light is coming from the side, because otherwise the camera would block any light and shade the subject. This is something to consider when doing very closeup photography — how will you light the shot?

Macro Test (Manual Focus)
Manual focus, 5mm, MFD: 2 inches


Photo Effects

The camera offers a handful of photo effects. They can't be applied to images already recorded (like you can do with the 60D, for example), but allows you to select them before you take a photo. These effects include fisheye, miniature (fake tilt-shift), toy camera, vivid, selective color, and color-switch. Here are some examples.

SX150 IS: Selective Color   SX150 IS: Selective Color
Selective color: red (left) and green (right)

SX150 IS: Miniature Effect   SX150 IS: Miniature Effect
Miniature effect: horizontal (left) and vertical (right)

SX150 IS: Vivid   SX150 IS: Toy Camera
Vivid (left) and Toy Camera (right)

SX150 IS: Fisheye Effect   SX150 IS: Fisheye Effect
Two examples of the fisheye effect

The eight examples above are unedited, straight from the camera to Flickr.

I doubt I'd use any of these very often, because my aim in photography is generally to simply record the scene as it happened — documentary style, and I rarely put any artistic effort into my images, especially clichéd effects like these. However, I was pretty impressed with the selective color options (you can choose which color you want to select, on screen, from your scene, before you take the photo). I could see how that could actually be useful if you're attempting to emphasize just a part of your scene.


Face Detection Modes

I didn't realize it when I ordered this camera, but it has three increasingly popular face detection modes.

First is the face-tracking mode. In Auto and Easy modes, the camera tracks any faces it detects in the frame and automatically focuses on them. It even decides which face is the "primary" face, if all the subjects' faces aren't in the same focus plane. That works pretty well. In playback mode, it still remembers which faces it focused on and lets you zoom on those rectangle to check the focus.

Second is the blink-detection. If the camera detects that one of your subjects is blinking, it'll warn you on screen.

Third is smile detection. With this mode activated, you can just hold the camera, and it'll take photos when the subject(s) smile — automatically.


No User Manual

At first, I was a little peeved to discover that the camera didn't come with a hardcopy of the user manual — there was just a "Getting Started" pamphlet. The full user guide is included with the CD in PDF format, and is available online. But I quickly remembered my experience in camera help forums, where a majority of people don't even read the manual anyway — users regularly ask questions that are answered clearly in the manual.

So I'm counting it as a "plus" that the full manual is digital only — it's better for the environment and means less clutter in my house.


Conclusion

I haven't found a better camera for the price, but remember I got a great deal on this one. The more I use it, the more I'm convinced that the regular price would have been worth it. My very first impression was not amazing, but over a couple of weeks, it's grown on me. I now like it better than the previous two Nikons we owned — neither of which lasted more than 13 months. If this one makes it to 14 months, it'll be my clear favorite.

UPDATE, Oct. 19, 2013

The camera didn't make it to 14 months. It lasted less than 11. It'll be our last point-and-shoot / compact camera.


Edits:

Edited Dec. 11, 2012 to include paragraph on user manual.
Edited Dec. 11, 2012 to include macro example, and to separate "macro" paragraph from "focusing issues" paragraph.
Edited Dec. 11, 2012 to include link to Photo Gear webpage.
Edited Dec. 13, 2012 to include two example photos of missed focus.
Edited Dec. 16, 2012 to change wording of final paragraph.
Edited Dec. 16, 2012 to add sections on face-detection modes and photo effects.
Edited Dec. 21, 2012 to update number of images taken on one battery charge.
Edited Oct. 19, 2013 to reflect that the camera quit working after 10 months.


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