Two compact ultrazooms are competing to be king of the ultra zoom digital cameras. I put Canon and Panasonic’s new geotagging marvels to the test. Compact ultrazoom cameras have progressed a lot in the last five years, It’s fair to recognise the great success of Panasonic’s Lumix TZ cameras in leading the pack but Canon’s new PowerShot SX230 HS is an impressive new challenger, so I took the opportunity to test it against the latest Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ20.
To check these credentials in addition to general use and image quality, I took the Canon SX230HS for a roadtrip through New Zealand’s picturesque South Island, and headed to the rugged Kimberley area in the North of Western Australia with the Panasonic TZ20. Because these cameras are made to travel…
Aside from their compact goodness, both cameras also feature GPS tagging of photos, which allows easy access to your images by location, as well as new possibilities such as creating map tracks of the places you’ve travelled through.
I write short articles as well as long feature “explainer” articles on topics including: Google Android Smartphones and Tablets, National Broadband Network (NBN), Space, Civil & Military Aviation, Ebooks and the Publishing Industry, Electric cars, Technology augmenting human capabilities etc for Geare Magazine. The editor of GEARE has kindly permitted me to post articles here after the magazine issue the article was printed in has passed its shelf life. I have added updates where new information is relevant.
Sensor: 12.1MP High Sensitivity CMOS
Processor: DiG!C 4
Focal length: 5.0-70mm (28-392mm 35mm equivalent)
Aperture: f/3.1- f/8.0
Shutter speed: 15-1/3200 sec.
Zoom: optical approx. 14x;
Image stabiliser: Optical (lens shift type)
Video: Full-HD 1920 x 1080/24 H.264
Features: GPS tagging, face detection
Dimensions: 106 x 62 x 33mm
Weight: 223g (with battery and SD card)
I asked for black but as luck would have it, Canon offered me a choice of pink or pink. I braced myself for the inevitable ridicule from companions on the New Zealand trip.
I encountered ease-of-use niggles early in particular with the flash on the SX230 HS which pops up at top left as soon as the camera is powered on, even when flash is disabled. And it stays popped up. Top left is where many users will naturally hold the camera – your finger and hand block the pop-up and strain the pop-up motor. I also noticed that flash can’t be used for close-up macro photos as the lens casts a shadow in the bottom right of photos.
Once I got accustomed to working around those issues, the Canon delivered superb image quality and colour for outdoor photos. While the fully automatic mode was good, I felt that the camera’s abilities were best exploited by manually setting the ISO, white balance and your ‘colour mode’ preference (I liked ‘Vivid’).
The 14x zoom lens worked surprisingly well across its range of 28-392mm, though I wish it was a bit wider (e.g. 25mm) to fit in a wider field when taking landscape and large group photos.
Make sure to keep the camera set to the default 4:3 aspect ratio as this uses the whole camera sensor. Setting it to 16:9 widescreen mode will result in the top and bottom of captured photo image information being lost.
While just out of the coveted f2.X range, the Canon’s f3.1-8.0 capability at the wide end and f5.9-8.0 at the long end of the lens worked well with Canon’s DiG!C 4 processor and new 12.1MP high-sensitivity CMOS sensor to produce sharp photos. Optical image stabilisation is a further bonus here.
I was pleasantly surprised to be able to take relatively good low-light photos, even up to ISO800. Once my shots were loaded onto Flickr, praise came even from photographer friends who shoot strictly with SLRs.
The camera’s GPS functionality is not bad for Canon’s first effort. GPS Logger works well outdoors (even in a helicopter!), but not from inside a car or building. Canon’s Map Utility application imports the GPS Logger files from your camera or SD card and displays the track on screen. Then you can import photos which will be matched to the track and you can export a KML file to view in Google Earth.
GPS tagging is similar, in that only outside photos will have GPS coordinates tagged. Even for those the camera has to be switched on for a bit of time so it can find the satellites before you can start tagging photos. If you turn the camera on, snap a few fast photos and then turn it off, it’s probable none of the photos will get tagged.
The SX230 HS would make a good compact camera on which to learn photography, thanks to its ability to switch between Easy, Auto, Program, Shutter priority, Aperture priority and full manual modes. Full HD movies can be taken in any mode simply by pressing the red-dot ‘record’ button.
I can see why TIPA gave its award for Best Superzoom Camera to the Canon PowerShot SX230 HS at its 2011 awards ceremony. In my view it is an excellent compact super zoom digital camera, highly competitive camera for this sector, and if the company were to fix the flash design, make the lens a bit wider and avoid getting sucked into the megapixel marketing race, the next generation could take the company to leadership in the compact ultrazoom camera market.
Sensor: 14.1MP 1/2.33-inch MOS
Lens: Leica DC Vario-Elmar
Focal length: f=4.3-68.8mm (24-384mmn 35mm equivalent)
Shutter speed: 60 – 1/4000 sec
Zoom: optical 16x; digital 4x
Image stabiliser: Optical (lens shift type)
Video: Full-HD 1920 x 1080/50 AVCHD
Features: GPS tagging, face detection
Dimensions: 100 x 55 x 21mm
Weight: 142g (with battery and SD card)
This is an example of the increasingly valid argument against having more pixels for their own sake. The Panasonic sensor has an effective 14.1MP over the Canon’s 12.1MP, but comparing its photos with those from the SX230 HS at 100% size, it’s clear that the TZ20 photos have more digital noise and loss of detail, especially in shadow and highlight areas.
Don’t get me wrong – many people will be quite happy with the TZ20’s image quality. I set the TZ20 to my preferred setting of ‘Vivid’ and the resulting photos were indeed vibrant and full of life. They brought out the rich earthy tones of the iron-oxide-rich Western Australian land and its wildlife without being too punchy or saturated.
Photos taken at the long-end of the zoom were reasonably sharp, which is a difficult thing to achieve with a compact camera. Macro mode on the TZ20 was also better than the corresponding mode on the Canon, thanks to the wide-angle 24mm lens, which allowed me to get really close to the details of tiny hermit crabs (smaller than your thumbnail) scampering about on the sandy beach at Broome Bird Observatory.
The wide angle also allows more landscape to fit into a photo as well, while the plethora of manual settings lets the TZ20 user choose between tweaking through experience, or going ‘novice’ with the camera’s Intelligent Auto setting.
High-definition 1920×1080/50i video shot in good light was excellent, and the one press movie start/stop recording button can be used in any scene mode, which is handy.
GPS tagging was again useful for pinpointing locations on Picasa, Flickr etc. It’s worth remembering, however, that turning off GPS except when needed can save a lot of battery power – also that by leaving such information on sites like Flickr you are potentially telling strangers where you and your family live, what’s in your home, etc.
A few niggles emerged. The TZ20 doesn’t rotate vertical photos to fill the screen if you turn the camera on its side in playback mode, so it’s harder to tell if they’ve been taken sharply. And the TZ20 lens took a long time to fully extend when powered on, compared with that of the SX230 HS. That can be the difference between grabbing a photo and missing it.
Button controls and the four-way rocker on the TZ20 are generally user friendly, with the exception of the tiny ‘exposure’ button. This actually controls shutter speeds in Shutter Priority mode. Either it should be removed (and the shutter speed changed via the four-way rocker) or it should be renamed to shutter speed.
I found the three-inch LCD touchscreen relatively unresponsive… it will certainly frustrate people used to the high sensitivity and speed of a modern Apple or Android smartphone. I expected this as soon as I saw there was a stylus supplied with the camera! Thankfully use of touch is optional, as everything is duplicated by hard buttons.
Both cameras took photos with good colour and sharpness, and this is a rare occasion where I have to declare a tie. There are merits and flaws in each so your choice will depend on how their relative strengths/weaknesses fit your expected usage.
The SX230 HS needs two things – better design of the pop-up flash, and a wider lens to enable better macros and landscape photos when at its widest un-zoomed setting.
For Panasonic to regain the crown of outright best superzoom it should return its focus to image quality. While the TZ20 has a clear advantage in the areas of zoom and wide angle, the SX230 HS has taken the lead on overall image quality, with impressively low digital noise and good capture of details.
This article was originally published in GEARE Magazine issue #67. It is “digitally reprinted” here with permission from the editor. I have added updates where new information is relevant.