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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Canon SX230HS - Review and Shooters Report

CANON SX230HS Review
July 2011, Carl Garrard
For the life of me I don't recall the last time I wrote a review on a true point and shoot camera. I was compelled too with this Canon for several reasons that I'll outline in the review. Lately I've lacked a bit of motivation in reviewing cameras for two main reasons: Gear lust is a bad thing and photography is much more important to me. The other reason is quite frank: manufacturers are really producing way too many me-too cameras with similar features- they are almost clones of one another as is the output. Boring.

There are a few diamonds in the rough out there though that I feel are worthy of taking the time to write about. Long gone are my 40 page time sucking red eye producing monologues, yet I think my conclusions here are just as solid, better than ever. People don't seem to have the time to read epic reviews any longer and lets just face it- neither do I. So lets get to the nitty gritty about this camera- in essence it's really just one long conclusion that I know most people skip right too in a review anyways.

I'm not going to bore you with specifications and marketing hype about the camera at all. Bottom line any camera is a tool intended to fill a specific purpose (i.e. photography), so instead, I'll get right to the point here. How well does the Canon SX230HS work as a tool?

Box Opening
  • An average package of cables, battery charger, software, etc. are included. I'll note that Canon included the small fold in style battery charger I prefer for my battery charging purposes.

First Impressions After Box Opening
  • Not quite a bar of soap in the hand, but definitely not a one handed shot grabber for odd angle shooting, just fine in the "normal" shooting position. Rear menu dial is brilliant- serves an ergonomic purpose for your thumb, easy to see your setting, easy to adjust.
  • Refined appearance, and build quality is higher than expected
  • LCD screen is large, and 16:9 wide, cramps the back a bit there
  • The thought of having GPS is exciting- something new for me personally
  • The concaved outer edges helps to keep a better grip on the camera, and looks nice too.
  • Definitely pants pocketable- passes that test
  • Flash pops up all the time- whoa, someone was smoking something at Canon (firmware update disable option, please.)
  • Menu system is very nice, almost makes up for lack of external control- like the G12 has for example
  • Digital zoom options are well implemented
  • AF assist beam included- perfect, good job Canon
  • No written manual included- I know we're cost cutting guys but seriously, stop it

First Day Shooting Impressions
  • Grid lines- a must in my book, glad to have them here
  • Overall pleased with the amount of manual and custom controls for a point and shoot- my expectations aren't all that high but I do require the basics which the Canon has
  • Might install chdk for raw advantage, but I want to see how good the Jpegs are first
  • No live histogram setting is a bummer, big one. Barely redeems itself though by having a limited one on image review.
  • ISO 100 daytime shots (with my sharpening settings) look fantastic for such a small sensor- Canon did a good job on allowing such a low sharpening setting so the photographer can do some minor post processing themselves
  • Lens is excitingly sharp on wide angle with very low barrel distortion- huge
  • Excellent range of zoom, sharp on the long end of the range too
  • f4.5 is the sweet spot of the aperture range, would be sharper at max telephoto if this were the max aperture
  • Macro ability is just slightly above average in its execution and ease of use, much better than average in smallest area captured- at its sweet spot and max min focus captured area, this lens is absolutely remarkable for its detail capturing ability. Mixed with my Jpeg settings, you can see the results in the macro sample I provided for yourself. Astonishing if you ask me.
  • AF can be fussy in Macro mode if you are shooting distant objects, won't lock (yellow border warning)
  • I set sharpening to the lowest level on every camera if I intend to use Jpegs- in this case I do, so I did. Sharpening is quite low at the -2 level and allows me to do it my way after in post processsing- so I'm pleased here. First ISO 1600 shot of myself and daughter was surprisingly low on noise and high on detail. Very impressive for a compact with such a small sensor.
  • I like the various volume settings I can customize for startup, shutter, etc- common on Canon's not so much on other cameras
  • Nice soft bokeh for a compact at max optical telephoto option- a nice surprise (see bokeh sample)
  • Handling wise, something, anything, besides the textured Canon logo should have been included for a grip on the front of the camera. Even some flush inlaid rubber on the front would help matters tenfold.
First Batch Image Quality Evaluation
The first batch of images really tell me about 99% of what I want to know about a camera, in every single case. I've done this for a while now so I have it down pat.

After reviewing my first images, first low ISO capability needs to be mentioned. This is the max image quality I'm able to extract from this camera with as few in-camera processing intrusions as possible (i.e. sharpening artifacts, blown color channels, over saturation, etc). I set the SX230HS at the "Custom Color" setting, reduced Contrast -1, Sharpness -2, saturation -1, and keep the RGB settings centered. This setting configuration allows for the following:
  • The lowest amount of sharpening so I can decide how to do it myself
  • Color saturation levels to be decided post process if needed
  • Highlights and shadows retained as much as possible on a Jpeg
  • Lowered appearance of noise at higher sensitivity levels
If that confuses you, just set your camera to those settings and know you are going to get the best out of camera images you can. If you don't know how to sharpen your images by way of sofware/post processing, just back off sharpening -1 instead of -2 and don't worry about the rest.

Results- Not many cameras produce good Jpegs nowadays. By good I mean not heavy handed in the processing in camera- more natural, less sharpening artifacts (jaggies etc), accurate color, etc. The SX230 tends to be much better than the competition here, especially with the settings I'm using.

I compared it to the Panasonic FZ35 which is regarded highly for its image quality- same sensor size, same resolution too. But the Canon beats the pants off the Jpegs- Raw image quality on the Pana is a different story but it isn't all that much better- if it is at all. Optically too, the Canon wins out over Panasonic's Leica lens. Great performance here especially at low ISO settings.

Untouched Landscape Image ISO 100, 28mm f/4 (Remember -2 sharpening)

Same Image, Sharpened via CS2, contrast adjustment

High sensitivity wise, the SX230HS has quite usable images to ISO 1600, and keeping in mind max print sizes should stay around 5x7" for ISO 3200 shots. Since most people don't print larger than 4x6- it's a real bonus. See the below ISO 3200 sample.

Untouched, out of camera:

Contrast and Sharpening Via CS2 (sharpening is 1.2pixels at 50% smart sharpen):

Image Stabilization
Canon's HS system works notably better than many of the recent IS systems I've used, including the G12's which I own and adore. HS is not all hype folks, it works darn good. I'm able to hand hold 392mm equivalent telephoto shots at 1/30th of a second without blur- that's better than my DSLR systems that I can recall. Your results may vary of course.

Here is a 1/40th second sample at 392mm (focus point is on the tree trunk)

Zoom Range
This is a massive zoom range for a pocketable compact. Luckily the IS (HS) system works effectively so that when you are holding the SX230 at arms length, telephoto images come out sharp. Here I've made samples of the zoom range at 28 mm and 392mm effectively. Talk about a good camera to bring to the Zoo, a sporting event, or a concert. It's also not a bad camera for bird watchers or hikers watching pack weight either.

SX230 @ Maximum Wide Angle (28mm)
SX230 @ Maximum Telephoto (392mm)

Macro Performance
As I noted in the first part of the review, the macro function isn't the easiest to use because the best magnification is on the wide end of the lens and you have to be nearly touching your subject. I prefer instead to zoom out a bit, and give myself about a 10cm focusing distance. This way I don't scare off subjects and I'm still able to get really nice close ups. Here is a sample at the wider end of the macro range. In my opinion, this is a pretty stellar performance, look at the fine hairs on this Grasshopper. For an idea of the scale of this image, the Grasshopper is about 1" long total.

Original Macro Image - Untouched
Original Macro Image- 100% Viewing Size Crop
Bokeh Performance
The SX230's lens allows for extreme zooming. Normally small sensor compacts have a shorter zoom range, coupled with such a small sensor typically backgrounds and foregrounds are usually almost in focus because of the inherent large depth of field. With longer zooms comes an added bonus however, softer more pleasing backgrounds and foregrounds when zoomed way out on a subject- isolating them sharp in a sea of creamy goodness. Here is a sample of the Bokeh ability of the SX230. Not bad at all for a compact, only slightly busy backgrounds.
Bokeh Sample (Foreground and Background out of focus region performance)

SX230 Annoying Quirks or Missing Features
  • No live histogram "what the..."
  • Flash pops up no matter what when you turn the camera on (really Canon?) "what the.."
  • No icons for EV compensation, Focus, or Timer Options
  • Slippery to hold most of the time
  • No written manual- some people actually do read them Canon "what the..."
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Couple of missed focus images in the bunch (not a user error)
SX230 Standout Attractions
  • Better than your average compact image quality by far (Top point and shoot? Maybe!)
  • Sharp lens, incredible zoom range
  • Just enough manual options and features to keep most enthusiasts happy
  • Pocketable, though not the smallest compact I've used
  • AF illumination lamp for total darkness focusing
  • Fast autofocusing
  • Big bright self amplifying LCD screen (good in bright sun)
  • Fun and useful scene and special shooting modes like Low Light, Toy Camera, and Miniature modes
  • Full HD video with excellent stereo sound, zooming during video, etc. Slow Motion option too (at 240fps x 320 wide resolution)
  • Two speed zooming for precise zooming control, or get it quick before its gone shots
  • GPS (didn't get to dive into this much, but im sure its a welcome feature
  • Good prints to 13x19" at base ISO, 5x7's look surprisingly good at ISO 3200
  • Pretty darn good battery life for such a small battery

Bottom Line Conclusion
Canon's SX230HS is a real winner of a compact point and shoot camera. Ok yes it's a Canon and you're used to hearing and reading  that. Trust me, I know. We'll I'm not afraid to pull any punches so take it from me when I say that this camera is a diamond in the pocketable camera rough. There are zillions of choices out there so make life easy on yourself and get this one if its in your price and feature range and don't look back.

It's got a couple of  "what the..." quirks but the strengths outweigh them handily. I'm not typically one to use cameras that don't have raw capability, yet I can be persuaded if the Jpeg quality is really good. In this case, the SX230HS does pass my strict standards enough to warrant the idea of replacing the other point and shoot camera we have in this house (typically my wife uses it). Admittedly though, this is a camera I'd want to shoot with especially when on vacation or at family functions. For a pocketable, quick and easy solution, I've yet to use a better point and shoot to date.

Video options on the SX230 are above average, very well done here. Quality of the video and sound are both above my expectations and should meet the needs of most point and shooter family types by far.

Features wise, this is a point and shoot but it's got more in the menu system than I'm accustomed to seeing. Item's are including that can help a learning photographer grow and learn fundamentals. For serious enthusiasts who want a pocketable camera, the choice might not be that easy, but the Canon SX230HS makes a great case for this role. Take a look at it.

Today I shot about 125 frames with it, and there is little I don't already know about the SX230. It's an easy camera to learn, to shoot with, and produces pleasing results. It's fast autofocus, sharp lens, awesome zoom range, very good Jpegs, and bright LCD are all items that warm me up to this camera. As many cameras that come and go here, typically my wife never takes notice of them. 

Today she asked me about this camera and what kind of Canon it was (shock and awe...). She remarked that it was a handsome camera and looked really nice. After showing her a couple things this camera could do indoors and out, she is pretty excited that I've decided to replace our point and shoot with this one, so she can get her hands on it herself. That is a rare event folks, normally she could care less about cameras I use. Take note!

If I see fit to add more information to this review, I will update it and note it. For now, I've covered enough and I'm pretty tired. I did more writing and work on this than I'd have liked, but it was a fun write up. As a photographic tool, the SX230HS is a very good one, I can't see too many people not liking this camera for the niche it is intended to fill. Good job overall on this one Canon, but please fix those "what the..."'s.

Tomorrow I get out early for some landscape photography and I'm going to bring this compact with me along with my DSLRs for quick snaps inbetween the serious stuff. 

As always, be safe and happy shooting.


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  1. great review, I agree this camera is a real bargain

  2. Realize the SX230HS is not on the same level as the G12, which I know you love :-)

    However, for someone looking mainly at Auto mode the majority of the time, would you still recommend the G12 over the SX230HS due to the larger sensor which would yield better IQ and be better in low light conditions?

  3. It depends on the application and needs of the user honestly. There's no way for me to know which would be better for someone, just because they use auto the majority of the time. Both are very different tools for different purposes. Both are exceptional compacts for what they do best.

  4. Such a great article which the first batch of images really tell me about 99% of what I want to know about a camera, in every single case. I've done this for a while now so I have it down pat. Inn which many cameras produce good Jpegs nowadays. By good It mean not heavy handed in the processing in camera- more natural, less sharpening artifacts (jaggies etc), accurate color, etc. Thanks for sharing this article.