With 10x optical zoom, the Canon SX120 is almost as small as a compact digital camera. The versatility of 10x zoom makes it much more fun to use comparing to a regular compact digicam. Before digital mega-zoom cameras were available, you would have to carry around a bunch of lenses and a camera body to be able to get to 10x magnification, but now you can get a digital camera with 10x optical zoom in a compact package and for a low price.
Mega-zoom cameras (loosely defined as cameras with 10x or more optical zoom) allow you to zoom in to magnify far-away objects while staying far from them. But not all mega-zoom cameras are created equal. Some cameras have no image stabilization at all (although, thankfully, they are rapidly becoming extinct), resulting in blurry images at high magnification levels and/or in dim light. Some cameras rely on increased sensitivity setting (ISO) to increase the shutter speed thereby reducing blur caused by the shake when the camera is handheld.
And then, at the top of the mega-zoom hierarchy, are cameras with optically-stabilized zooms. These cameras move an optical element within the lens (some shift the CCD sensor itself) to reduce or eliminate blur caused by shooting handheld. The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is on of these cameras and can claim the best anti-blur technology.
I have used many mega-zoom cameras, including the Panasonic DMC-FZ28, the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS, the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS and many others. Most were full-sized mega-zooms. They had over 15x magnification but were bulky. The Canon SX120 belongs to a group of mega-zooms that are compact, yet reach 10x magnification.
What Is Canon SX120 IS?
The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is a digital camera with optical image stabilization, 10x zoom, 10-Megapixel resolution and a 3-inch LCD screen. The camera has face detection and uses SD memory cards for storage (SDHC capable).
The Canon SX120 IS is powered by 2 AA batteries. Its 10x optical zoom and optical image stabilization work together to give you sharp pictures when shooting handheld and/or at long distances. The camera's 10x optical zoom is an equivalent of 36-360mm (film equivalent). Although 36mm is not as wide as I prefer, 360mm telephoto end is pretty impressive for such a compact camera.
The camera features a maximum apertures of f/2.8 at wide angle and f/4.3 at full telephoto. The image storage is on SD cards in JPEG format. In addition to digital still photographs, the camera can record video clips with sound at up to 640x480 30 fps. The connectivity is provided by USB 2.0 interface.
The camera lets you shoot at the resolutions of up to 10 Megapixel, which allows you to print enlargements or crop a part of the picture and print it with excellent sharpness. The 10-Megapixel resolution is more than enough for the standard 6x4 or 5x7 prints.
The camera features selectable ISO between 80, 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1600 as well as Auto and High ISO Auto. The Canon SX120 IS has a very bright autofocus-assist light for better and faster focusing in low-light conditions. It works well in dim light and allows the camera to focus very fast.
The camera also features manual focusing mode with magnification, but it is not something that is needed frequently (if at all), since the automatic focusing works so well. The power is supplied by 2 AA batteries (rechargeable batteries of high capacity are best).
The camera has exposure compensation of +/- 2 stops in 1/3 stop increments.
Metering and Exposure
The SX120's light metering can be selected between Evaluative, Center-Weighted and Spot (center or AF point). I find Spot and Center-Weighted modes useful when taking pictures of people at distances where the flash doesn't reach in backlight. In Evaluative metering mode, the faces might turn out underexposed, unless you dial some exposure compensation.
In Spot mode, you can set metering to properly expose the face of your subject. Also, the Spot metering mode can help you figure out the proper exposure in difficult lighting conditions be metering off the object with known tonal characteristics and then dialing some exposure compensation.
The camera's exposure modes include Program AE, Aperture and Shutter Priority mode, and even full Manual mode. The shutter speed can be set between 15 and 1/2,500 sec with speeds slower than 1.3 sec available in Shutter Priority or Manual mode and operating with noise reduction.
The Program AE modes let you avoid figuring out the details and the full auto mode turns the operation into fully-automatic point-and-shoot. You only need to point the camera where you want and push the shutter release button. The camera will take care of all the rest.
The SX120 IS has an excellent Macro mode, which lets you get very close to your subject. It also has manual focusing, which, in conjunction to available manual exposure, makes it a very versatile camera. As I mentioned before, the automatic focusing works very well, which mitigates the need to use manual focusing in virtually all situations.
The camera can record AVI movie clips at up to 640x480 pixels at 30 or 15 fps with sound. 320x240 resolution is also available.
The Canon SX120 IS has a 3-inch LCD with good 230,000 pixels with 100% coverage. There is no viewfinder. The LCD is fluid, has pleasing colors and good resolution. It is fluid, even in low light. I found that the LCD is well-visible in regular conditions, but in sunlight, visibility decreases and the lack of viewfinder manifests itself.
A quick suggestion on maximizing battery life: turn off its continuous focus and continuous image stabilization, both of which are battery hogs. If you disable both of them (and switch to focusing and OIS only after the shutter release button is depressed), the battery life improves somewhat.
Unlike the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS, or Fuji S6000fd, which use 4 AA batteries or other cameras (e.g. Panasonic DMC-FZ28) which use proprietary Li-Ion battery packs, the Canon SX120 IS uses 2 AA batteries. Canon includes 2 alkaline batteries with the camera, but obviously you have to get your own rechargeable batteries, preferably NiMH of high capacity and a charger. The alkaline batteries that are included don't last long and cannot be recharged. Using disposable AA batteries is bad for environment and your wallet. I have used my Rayovac 2300 mAh NiMH batteries.
I dislike cameras that don't come with rechargeable batteries (unless they are inexpensive) and here is why. Usually, cameras that use 2 AA batteries are slow in recharging their flashes. After you take one photo with flash, you have to wait until the flash recharges to take another. And the wait with 2 AA batteries is usually much longer than with 4 AA batteries or a custom Li-Ion battery pack.
Cameras that use 4 AA batteries are bulky and heavy once batteries are loaded, plus it is cumbersome to remove and reinsert four of them. With 4 AA batteries, the additional disadvantage is the price of batteries and the charger, the weight and inconvenience of having to deal with 4 batteries instead of one.
I am willing to give a camera a chance if it is very good in other respects, however. The advantage of using AA batteries is the ease of finding replacement rechargeable or disposable batteries. As mentioned above, the 2-AA battery cameras have issues flash recycle time. Just as I suspected, the Canon SX120 IS proved this simple truth once more as its flash took up to 12 seconds to recycle.
The SX120 provides up to 10 Megapixels of resolution, which lets you produce excellent prints up to 10x8 inches (and even larger), provided the lighting is good. There are lower resolutions to choose from in the menu, but with inexpensive memory cards, why bother?
The SX120 is well built and has a solid feel. It is relatively convenient to hold. Upon arrival, I loaded my two 2300 mAh Rayovac NiMH batteries, inserted my 512 MB SD card and was ready to shoot.
In comparison to some other mega-zoom cameras, a positive difference of the SX120 is the absence of the lens cap that needs to be removed manually. The camera uses lens doors that open automatically, which is nice.
In the Box
The camera comes with 2 AA-sized alkaline disposable batteries, a wrist strap, an AV cable, USB cable, a "starter" 128-Megabyte SD memory card and a CD-ROM with manuals and software.
The camera's operation is very fast. The power-up takes less than 2 seconds (mostly taken by the lens extension) and is relatively quiet. The camera focuses very fast as well (under a second), seemingly as fast as the Panasonic FZ28 or Canon SX20 IS.
The zooming is precise and fast. The shutter lag when pre-focused is virtually absent and the picture is taken almost instantaneously. The shot-to-shot delay is a bit more than one second. In high-speed shooting modes, the images were captured at about 1-1.5 fps.
The flash is raised or lowered manually and has an adjustable output, It has red-eye reduction modes, which still don't eliminate the red-eye completely. There is also a red-eye removal option in playback mode.
Shooting with flash is slower since the flash needs time to recharge. Not surprisingly (taking into account only 2 AA batteries) the flash recycle time can reach 12 seconds (shooting in dim light at smallest aperture opening with a subject far away).
The camera focuses fast, even in dim light and even at full telephoto. It had no issues in any kind of light indoors.
The image stabilization has several modes: Off, Continuous, Shoot Only, Panning. The Continuous mode is a battery hog, so I suggest that you do not use it. I haven't used the continuous image stabilization as it reduces battery life and, more importantly, produces slightly more motion blur in images in comparison to the image stabilization during the shutter release only.
I was took more than 170 pictures without seeing the low-battery warning. Canon specifies that the camera can take up to 130 shots using alkaline disposable batteries and 370 shots using rechargeable NiMH batteries. The corresponding playback times are 7 and 9 hours respectively.
Ease of Use
Once you get used to Canon menu systems, they are pretty easy to use. Overall, the ease of use is very high and almost reaches my all-time favorite (Panasonic).
The USB 2.0 on this Canon is a "real deal". It is USB 2.0 High Speed (unlike some cameras that used to have USB 2.0 Full Speed, which stood for "USB 1.0-speed"). The transfer speeds are fast. I mostly used my memory card reader however, just as always. It is faster, more convenient and conserves the batteries of the camera.
Just as many other recent cameras, this model features face detection technology. The face detection works surprisingly well, finding faces in the frame, showing you that it found them by displaying focusing rectangles over them, focusing on them and making sure they are properly exposed as well.
There is a reason Canon is the leader in consumer digital cameras. When friends ask me for camera recommendations without being able to specify the exact usage criteria, I catch myself thinking about (and frequently recommending) Canon cameras. One of the reasons is the fact that all Canon cameras (with a small exception) are very good or excellent. Other manufacturers have better (in my opinion) cameras in some specific areas. But as far as the overall lineup goes, Canon cannot be beat. They dominate the marketplace as the result.
Canon cameras feature somewhat uniformly excellent picture quality. True, some of them (e.g. small SD-series cameras) have slightly blurry corners. But overall, Canon cameras have uniformly excellent colors, good sharpness and produce images that look good printed.
The Canon SX120 IS produces very good pictures. They are richly saturated, sharp (in the center) from wide angle to telephoto and have pleasing colors. I really like the sky colors and the way the camera renders clouds. The corners are slightly soft though, especially at wide angle.
The chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is apparent in areas of high contrast at both wide angle and telephoto, mostly in corners of the frame.
The image stabilization works well and lets me take handheld photos at full telephoto at 1/100 and sometimes at slower speeds. I also could take handheld photos at 1/10 (and slower) at wide angle. This is much better than the rule of the recommended handheld shutter speeds (1/equivalent focal length) suggests. Without image stabilization I wouldn't be able to take pictures at the above shutter speeds. 1/500 at telephoto and 1/50 at wide angle would be the slowest I could use.
I mostly used the lowest ISO available (ISO 80) and saw no image noise. At higher ISO settings, the noise starts to appear. At ISO 200, you can see noise appear in the shadows/darker areas and ISO 400 has quite detectable noise, the ISO 800 features even worse noise, which becomes rather bad and the detail level suffers too. Fortunately, you can avoid having to use it in most situations by simply using a slower shutter speed and/or larger apertures (e.g. F2.8 at wide angle). Image stabilization lets you use those slower speeds handheld without fear of motion blur appearing on your pictures.
But if you have to use a faster shutter speed, then you have to use ISO 400-1,600. Surprisingly, the noise at ISO 800 is not as bad as I expected and ISO 800 photos can be printed at 5x7 or 4x6. You can print ISO 1,600 pictures, but I would only recommend it in situations where you have no other choice and only at the smaller sizes (e.g. 6x4).
The ISO 800 or higher will not let you print sharp 10x8 photos; they will be grainy. So if you need to print photos larger than 5x7, use ISO lower than 800. And obviously, the lower the ISO, the better is the detail level.
And a note on the flash: not only it takes forever to recycle, the flash has only moderate reach and uneven coverage at wide angle.
The camera came with a 1-year warranty.
Pros: High resolution, low price for features, good performance, image stabilization, 10x zoom
Cons: Slow flash recycle, slightly soft corners, no viewfinder
The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is an excellent choice if you need an inexpensive and compact camera with 10x optical zoom and optical image stabilization. But if you plan to use it in dim light with flash a lot, plan to be patient as the flash recharges slowly.