Canon Powershot SX20 IS

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a compact, but it doesn't disappoint.

The Long Version: I've been looking for a compact camera for a while, and not having much luck. Admittedly, there's no shortage of cameras in my life, so I wasn't just looking for a generic happysnap, and a lot of what I want is contradictory. I like small P&S toys, and love the Canon SD780 for its body, but I own three pocketable cameras already. I'd like something durable, but already have the Olympus 770SW. Ultimately I decided that what I was really lacking was quality video recording and a visible-light long zoom. Since I already have the FZ18, I was waiting for its replacement's replacement to hit the store shelf. It arrived, I didn't like it, and after considering just about everything else from Canon and Panasonic, I picked the Powershot SX20 IS.

The SX20 is still a fairly new camera, and like all of the review sites that haven't published their thoughts yet, I haven't had much time for in-depth analysis. Not that it's really worth doing much in-depth analysis: compact cameras are never particularly strong on image quality, and it's certainly not my priority when I can put a lens on an SLR and have a combination that costs ten times what this Powershot does. It's all about the features.

The SX20 replaces the SX10, which replaces the S5, and so on down to the S1 - skipping #4 - that came out in early 2004. In digital camera years, that should earn it a bronze plaque and special municipal protections as a heritage site. It's not surprising that Canon has gotten just about everything right.

The defining feature of the SX20 is the lens. It zooms through its 28-560mm-equivalent range very quickly, and focusing is fast enough that it doesn't annoy me. The lens is decent, reasonably sharp, with some distortion and fringing, but not that much. Again, my standard is simple: it doesn't annoy me. The image quality is pretty good; not SLR-class, but as good as anyone can expect from sRGB jpegs and an itty-bitty sensor that's noisy at its base iso.

The next feature that appeals to me is the flippy LCD screen. I have one on my Olympus E-3, and know just how important it is for Live View shooting. Since the HD video is going to be a major use for this camera, the flip-out screen puts it above cameras of similar quality. Not that there are a lot of similar cameras; the FZ35 would have been a logical choice for me, but its AF speed had already knocked it out of contention.

The final big feature of the SX20 that appealed to me is a little more subjective - I like that it takes AA batteries. My sound recorder also runs on them, so if I'm out to record video and audio, then I only need one type of backups. Handy. It does add some extra weight to an already not-light camera, but given how much weight the lens puts on the front of the camera, I think it actually helps the balance. The AA's also means that rechargeable batteries need to be added to the price of the camera before it can be fairly compared to other long-zoom cameras, and since it's already toward the top of the price bracket, that's not insignificant. At least the SD card slot isn't in the battery compartment the way it was with the S5 IS.

Naturally, there's more to be said for the SX20. It has a hot-shoe, so there's no reason why I couldn't hook it up with a Canon speedlight. It can work in fully manual mode, so I could also run my Olympus flashes or use my Pocket Wizards on it. The built-in flash needs to be moved up to fire, so there's no risk of having it go off without warning. The controls overall are very good for a compact: not quite at the G10 level, but it still has more buttons than some entry-level SLRs. It has the spinning control wheel around the four-way controller, but even it isn't as touchy and annoying as the one on the SX200 or most of the Elph line. The SX20 works just like a Canon camera, and in a good way.

But the Canon still has some odd and inherited quirks. The lens cap has only a tenuous grasp on the camera, which is unchanged from at least the S5 IS. (Updated: I've replaced mine with a lens cap from Nikon, which is the best design out there right now, but any 52mm cap will work.) The lens hood is a nice, slightly flexible plastic, but I've needed to tape it in place. This shouldn't be that difficult. I suppose, since it doesn't have an "L" lens, I should just be happy that Canon includes a lens hood at all.

And finally, I have to say that I'm pleased with the video quality. It's far, far better than the Olympus Stylus 770SW that I've been using, and the audio is passable as well. Not great, but passible, and better than most of the cameras that I've tested. I'd have no problem recommending the SX20 to people who are looking for a long-zoom camera with decent, but not quite HD-Camcorder-level video. It has a few quirks, but overall it's a very well built camera that has had the advantages of experience and time to get the design right. It will never rival the image quality of any of my SLRs, but it doesn't need to. It's perfect for biking, is able to handle just about any (daylight) situation, and it fits into my MEC Pod slingpack along with my audio recorder and gorillapod. Instead of putting this one on a test bench, I just look at the photos it takes, and am happy that I had the SX20 with me to take them.

updated much later: the SX20 proved to me how much I could like a long zoom lens, but I sold it after I bought a Panasonic GH1 with its 14-140 lens. It's not the same range as the Canon, but the better image quality makes up for it.


  1. You're not the only one using this camera for video: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2009/09/belinda.html

  2. Bill, thanks for the great link.

    I'm still somewhat uncommitted about video; I haven't yet been able to imagine how I can add it to my product photography. (Well, VR and the like notwithstanding.) For others, it's a far more immediate need. A friend of mine who works for newspapers is no longer a Photographer, he's a 'Visual Journalist'.

    My plan is to use the SX20 to create behind-the-scenes and tutorial videos, and hopefully that will promote my business. Once I have those I'll add a link from this review - but first I need to learn how to use Final Cut Express. It might be a while before that happens.

  3. Hi Matthew.
    Thanks for you opinion. Because it's a recent camera I couldn't find many reviews. I have a compact now and want to upgrade to a bridge camera. First thought of the Lumix FZ38 but today at the store I saw the Canon SX20.
    I'm a little dissapointed about it having AA bateries. How many photos do you usually take with one use of 4 bateries? You always have 4 in stock in case you'll need them?
    Because I see you know a bit about cameras, do you have an opinions between the Lumix and the Canon?
    Once again, thanks a lot for this comment.

  4. The AA batteries do add weight and bulk to a camera that's already bigger and heavier than the FZ35/38. But like Garfield said, if the rope's already around your neck, you might as well jump off of the horse. I don't know how long the batteries last, because I've never been able to exhaust a set of them. So no complaints on that aspect, and I'll update my review when I've run a set down.

    Compared to the FZ35/FZ38, other than it being larger, heavier, and taking AA batteries, I think the SX20 wins out. I had plenty of reasons to want the new Panasonic, but its focus speed at full telephoto was significantly worse than the SX20. Since that's the end of the lens that I'm interested in - if it wasn't, I'd buy a ZS3 - I'm okay with giving up the Panasonic's raw capability in exchange for getting the shot in the first place. No camera's perfect, but this one is pretty good.

  5. Your review is quite illuminating in very few words. But I have a doubt. Can we add teleconvertor lens or wide angle lens to Canon sx 20is? and second doubt is can we record video upto full space of a 32gb memory card? Hope you would clarify. thank you.

  6. Thanks very much for the comment.

    I doubt that we'll ever see tele or wide converters for the SX20. None were/are available for the other SX series cameras, and they've lost the mount that the preceding S-series long-zooms had to support their extensions. For what it's worth, though, the lens on the SX cameras covers the same range as the S5IS with the converters attached. It's a pretty incredible reach, and would cost thousands of dollars to replicate on an SLR.

    I'm not sure about the video, but I suspect that it might be possible. I've looked at the data rate for the video, and it averages about 3MB per second, or 180MB per minute. I only have 8GB SD cards, and the camera says that I can record just over 42 minutes of video on an empty one. That would fill the entire card. So while I can't say if it will record almost three hours of video at one go - use an AC adapter! - the limit is certainly higher than 8GB, and there may not be any limit at all.

    And speaking of power consumption, I finally had the patience to wear out a set of batteries. Using a fresh set of modest 2000mAh rechargeables, I took 314 photos and recorded 12 minutes of video. While it's impossible to say how that will compare to other people's experience - there's no such thing as 'typical use' - I'm very happy with it. My only quibble is that there's no battery status meter, only a "low Battery" warning icon, and when you see it you had better have a fresh set nearby because they're going to be needed really, really soon.

  7. thank u very much Matthew.I have been all along indecisive whether to buy panasonic dmc fz35 or this 20is from canon. Because most of the reviews adjudge them evenly. My instinct asks me to go for canon? Do i do a right thing?How do you compare these two in terms of image and video quality? Hope you would throw some light on this.thank u once again.

  8. The difference between the SX20 and FZ35 are the features: flip-out screen and a longer telephoto for the SX20, and a smaller/lighter body for the Panasonic. I can't say this often enough: go to a camera store and try them out. The physical difference between them is significant, and actually using the cameras - even for a few minutes - is far more revealing than hours of review-reading.

    Comparing the image and video quality: honestly, both are good, but neither are exceptional. If you're going to be critical and demanding about image quality, tiny-sensored long-zoom cameras aren't the place to be. Enjoy their versatility and don't spend too much time worrying about the details.

  9. hi friends, I happened to come across your discussion on cameras and am delighted to know the various doubts and answers. I have a Olumpus point and shoot and would like to buy a super zoom camera.I confine myself to the following models. Kodak z980,sony hx1,canon2ois and panasonic sz35. My question is in terms of image quality can u rank them? Is sony hx1's image quality is good?

  10. I'll say it again - If you're going to be critical and demanding about image quality, tiny-sensored long-zoom cameras aren't the place to be. On the other hand, they're all pretty much good enough, with the single exception that Kodak cameras aren't even as good as a Coolpix.

    Choosing any compact camera by dissecting their image quality is like trying to find the most nutritious piece of candy.

    Anyone who tries to decide between a Mars and Snickers bar by reading the ingredients and comparing the nutritional information is missing the point. They're the same except for the peanuts - it's a simple choice.

  11. Am interested in macro photography with Canon Powershot 20XSIS; what is ur experience? Can we use any adapters on it? Would Lensmate adapters work? Not very happy with the macro photos I have taken; the zoom is fine but grainy when the digital is added on. Your views please.


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