With prices constantly coming down in the digital camera market, Canon's range was crying out for a low-cost camera with a very powerful zoom, as already proffered by the likes of Olympus and Nikon. Canon has plugged that gap with the PowerShot SX500 IS, a 30x zoom camera that's a sort of mini-bridge stripped of anything that could push up the price. The body is therefore made from hard, raw plastic, there's no viewfinder, and the electronics are worthy of an entry-level compact.
While Canon's Ixus compacts are generally sleek, metal-built snappers with quality finishes, the firm's bridges are open to more criticism. The SX40, for example, has a grip handle that's just not deep enough and its casing feels quite plasticky.
But plasticky has been taken to a whole new level in the SX500. The camera body is made entirely from a hard, black, matte material that isn't exactly flattering. The handle on the front of the camera has a better design than the one in the SX40, but it still doesn't really give good enough grip. Thankfully, though, this camera is much lighter and still feels relatively nice to hold. Product assembly is pretty good, with no worrying wobbles to the controls, but the quality of the materials used really gives this camera an "entry-level" feel.
There's no way we'd expect to see a decent screen in a low-cost camera. Here, the contrast is OK, but that's the only real saving grace. And even then, contrast only holds up when you're facing the camera screen directly—the SX500 uses a TN-type LCD panel which makes viewing angles quite poor (the screen starts to look dark when viewed from below). The gamma falls apart from mid-greys onwards, washing out light shades completely. Colour fidelity is poor too. We measured the average Delta E at 9.5 with peaks at almost 15 in certain shades—notably, flesh tones are so desaturated that even a St Tropez tan will end up looking pale and pasty. (Delta E measures colour fidelity and should be under three for colours to be considered "perfect" onscreen).
Otherwise, the camera's controls and interface make it nice to handle. The SX500 is easy to use, the menus are quite clear, and a notched control wheel around the four-way arrow buttons means you can adjust settings quickly.
There's also a button on the left of the lens barrel for temporarily zooming out at top speed when you're at a telephoto setting. This can be handy for finding a subject you've lost from view, which can happen quite easily with a maximum focal length of 720 mm!
How, in 2012, can a big camera brand out a model that makes you wait 2.7 seconds between taking two photos? This sluggishness is even more surprising since the A4000 IS, based on the same sensor, can snap two consecutive photos with just one second's delay.
We found that in real-life situations (i.e. not in our test lab), the SX500 IS struggled to focus at the longest focal lengths as soon as there was any kind of movement in the scene. Plus, when holding the camera at arm's length at a focal length of 720 mm, you inevitably still get some camera-shake from the user's arms—the SX40 did a better job of keeping that at bay.
The SX500 uses a 16-Megapixel CCD that we already know (but don't love) and a new 30x zoom lens with an equivalent focal range of 24-720 mm.
These ISO test results show that when it comes to sensitivity, the SX500 performs in a similar way to the A4000 IS, which uses the same sensor. Everything is OK up to 400 ISO—noise is visible at 100% size but is still discreet on an 8" x 10" photo (20 x 27 cm). At 800 ISO, detail is still present in the shot but is slightly smoothed and noise is visible in shadows. At 1600 ISO, not much is salvageable.
The lens used in the Canon SX500 is a mixed bag. The centre of images is always sharp and rich in detail. However, the same can only be said for the edges of the shot at mid-range focal lengths—around 200 mm. At wide-angle and telephoto settings, the edges of the image aren't as well rendered—while sharpness around the edges of the frame holds up reasonably well at the maximum zoom setting and is still just about OK at wide-angle, the image is spoiled by some quite visible chromatic aberration (see sidebar, right).
That's a real shame, as a chromatic aberration correction system is now a pretty basic function of most image processing chips. Correcting this issue could have really transformed quality of the SX500's pictures.
Seeing as it uses a CCD sensor, the SX500 IS can't film 1080p Full HD video. Instead, you get 720p HD at 25 fps. Images are therefore obviously less richly detailed than with 1080p, but still, we've seen better-quality 720p. The SX500 overexposes light, bright parts of the image and video noise is very visible, particularly in darker zones. Finally, the SX500 is quite sensitive to glare and soon gets dazzled by light. This shows up as vertical lines sticking out from very bright light sources when filming outdoors.
Sound is recorded in stereo, but you can barely hear the stereo effect. Voices are clearly audible but metallic sounds are ringing and exaggerated. Plus, the buzz from the zoom lens could be a tad more discreet.