While the SX20 was only a very slight update of the SX10, Canon is now back with a very much new and improved version of its bridge camera, the PowerShot SX30 IS. Canon is clearly aiming to take a shot at the market's current leaders, the Panasonic FZ series, as well as entering the race for the most powerful zoom with its 35x (24-840 mm) lens!
HandlingThe first thing we noticed was the camera's new design. While the handle and flash mount were previously visibly separate entities to the camera body, they have now been effectively integrated into the overall design for a smooth, flowing finish. In fact, all parts protruding from the camera body (flash-mount cover, mode-selection dial etc.) have been carefully redesigned and finished in black to help them blend into the camera body more effectively. There is, however, a bright red line around the base of the mode-selection dial—a strange choice that seems a rather awkward addition to the sleek overall look. Plus, the swivel screen's hinge seems to have been stuck on artificially to the back of the camera. When we showed the SX30 around our office, we found people either loved or hated its design, but everyone had something to say about it.
The screen only displays 230,000 dots, which is a little low, especially since much better-defined swivel screens have appeared over the last year on cameras such a the Panasonic FZ100, Samsung EX1 and even the Canon G12! While Canon's expert compacts now have a second physical control for adjusting the settings (a ring on the S95, a thumb wheel on the G12), this bridge just has one click-round wheel on the back. Another downside is the shape of the handle, as although it's certainly very stylish, it wasn't deep enough for us to grip the camera properly.
The SX30 is made entirely from plastic but it's a nicely finished camera on the whole. The camera's controls are well laid out and there's a separate video record button.
ResponsivenessThe SX30 IS doesn't really stand out as a good or bad camera in this field. It takes two seconds to start up, the autofocus works consistently at around a second, and photo-to-photo turnaround takes 2.5 seconds. The camera doesn't feel slow to use but it doesn't feel especially fast either. The same can be said of the burst mode too, at 1.4 fps.
Picture QualityWe've already seen the CCD sensor used in the SX30 in other cameras. In fact, it's very probably the same sensor as that used in this camera's direct rival, the Panasonic FZ45. Canon does, however, take a slightly different approach to image processing. The Panasonic model processes images heavily, enhancing certain details and smoothing areas of flat colour, whereas the Canon camera takes a more classic approach to handling noise, with smoothing visible from 200 ISO. That said, in practice, these two bridges take very similar pictures. In other words, 400 ISO is really the highest you can go to get a decent 8'' x 10'' shot, while 800 ISO is just about acceptable for small prints. Plus, you might as well forget about using the highest ISO setting.
Although a 35x zoom can cause all kinds of problems, the lens used in the SX30 is actually pretty decent, capturing detailed images at all focal lengths ... so long as you can keep the camera still enough to prevent blurring from camera shake! Even with an effective stabilisation system, zooming out over 800 mm with the camera in your hands is sure to cause a few wobbles. However, sharpness is only lost with the zoom out to its furthest settings.
The SX30 IS does suffer from chromatic aberration in wide-angle mode (see sidebar), but we'd pretty much expect that in such a powerful zoom lens. However, some competitors' cameras are equipped with systems that correct the aberrations on the fly by adjusting the red, green and blue 'channels' in relation to one another. This a particular speciality of Panasonic, whose cameras are all almost entirely immune to this kind of defect and have been for several years.
VideoAfter having held off from introducing a 720p video mode for longer than most, Canon now seems to be just as stubborn about upgrading to 1080 video (already found in the Panasonic FZ100, the Sony HX1 etc.). However, it's true that moving from 720 to 1080 resolution doesn't have quite the same impact as switching from VGA to 720p. Compacts that film in Full HD rarely produce perfect results, plus the video files are much larger and the gain in quality can actually be quite negligible.
The SX30 has a good 720p HD video mode with a fairly sharp picture and noise kept in check. The continuous autofocus is smooth and effective, and acceptable-quality stereo sound is recorded. The SX30 IS can certainly hold its own against other bridge cameras, although it can't match specialist models or certain compacts with interchangeable lenses.