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Superzoom cameras have long been the butt of many jokes here at the office. As the market continues to demand ever-longer zoom ratios, manufacturers are forced to respond. The results are long-zoom cameras with magnification capabilities that were already silly a year ago, and have since passed full-on ridiculousness.
The reason why we smirk at these cameras is because when zoom ratio goes up, image quality has a tendency to take a nosedive. That's not always the case, though. Panasonic's FZ series is immune, and maybe today's $479.99 PowerShot SX50 HS will be, too.
Aside from a preposterously long lens, the SX50 has received few physical updates since its predecessor. Body shape, for better and worse, is largely the same. The flash, LCD, mode dial, and outer paneling all seem identical. In fact, even the lens' outer styling reminds us of last year's model.
Although the designers obviously gave some thought to this camera's shape, we wonder why they stopped short of coating the body in anything except smooth plastic. While the front hand grip protrudes far enough to help keep the camera stable, the complete lack of rubberization anywhere on the camera was an oversight last year and still hasn't been rectified. On the rear panel, there's a concave depression intended to cup your thumb, but ours naturally came to rest well above this area. Together, all these issues make the camera feel cheaper than it is, and left us scratching our heads, just like we did with the SX40 HS.
Although we wish some extra effort had been committed to ergonomics, the SX50 is still easy to use for photographers of any level. We think Canon's menu system is the best in the industry, however some buttons and dials feel cheap and toy-like. We reserve special praise for the focus zone button, located directly below the video hotkey, which is helpful for changing your "FlexiZone" focus area on the go. Some users may also find the shortcut button helpful, but it's situated far off on the left side of the EVF, and we rarely bothered to reach for it. The full-sized hardware mode dial is also a little too shallow for our tastes, but it does contain all the "PASM" shooting modes, as well as a few dedicated modes like Scene and Picture Effects, not to mention two programmable custom modes.
The lens is the main event. The SX50's comically long lens offers a zoom magnification of 50x, by far the most super of the superzooms on the market today. For some consumers, optical zoom is the new "megapixel," meaning it's the one specification by which people tend to measure a camera's worth. Of course that's a rather unsophisticated way to judge a product, but at least the SX50 offers more than just a long lens.
For those that really can take advantage of 50x (who are these people?), you'll find the lens capable of resolving detail from clear across a football field or two, with a 35mm-equivalent focal range of 24 to 1200mm. Another important change: The lens motor is much more powerful than the SX40's, so the SX50 doesn't just reach 50x, it flies down to 50x in only two or three seconds.
Aside from picture effects and plenty of included scene modes, Canon hasn't exactly gone out of their way to provide extra shooting features. However, we do appreciate the attention to video recording, which has been upgraded since last year and is now capable of relatively detailed control...at least, for a fixed-lens camera. Overall, it seems as if Canon has tried to offset a flimsy build with ease-of-use and extreme zoom lens, so high-end users will likely have little interest in this model. There is manual control and RAW support for those who want to grow a bit with their camera, but we'd recommend the SX50 more to novice users than to those who really know their way around a camera.
We found the SX50's image quality to be generally very strong, however this evaluation comes with a few "buts." For example, sharpness scores were outstanding... but they've been artificially enhanced by software. Likewise, color scores were just-okay... but color reproduction seemed fantastic in our sample shots. Noise levels are also quite low, but the aggressive noise reduction system wipes out detail with reckless abandon.
The noise levels are perhaps the most interesting. With its standard point-and-shoot sensor, the SX50 must rely on software tricks to keep noise down in low light. The SX50's noise reduction system does this well, but image quality suffers beginning as early as ISO 200—a bad fault to have, since it limits the utility of that long zoom lens.
That isn't to say that the SX50 is a bad camera. These faults are shared by the whole superzoom category, and those cameras don't have the 50x capability of this one. The SX50 is also quite speedy, with 2.18fps shooting with full continuous autofocus and a 13fps mode that is only functional when using the normal "fine" JPEG compression. If you're primarily concerned with capturing outdoor action and couldn't give a hoot about RAW support, the SX50 isn't a bad option at all—just avoid low light where possible.
Superzoom cameras were already passing epic magnification levels last year, so it is with no shortage of bewildered fascination that we sit here reviewing the world's first consumer still camera to offer 50x optical zoom. To put that in perspective, were this a traditional 35mm camera, that camera's lens would need to be a ridiculous 1,200mm long.
Unfortunately, a 50x lens comes with some drawbacks. While the SX50 produced excellent results in our sharpness test, the software edge enhancement went way overboard. We usually tolerate about 5% oversharpening, but the SX50 can oversharpen in excess of 45%. This effect manifests as ugly white halos and dark black borders surrounding your subjects, making them appear unnatural to the trained eye. In this way, what appears to be the SX50's best feature is actually one of its worst.
But aside from forged sharpness, the camera is otherwise impressive from top to bottom. The small sensor generally avoids producing excess image noise, or more accurately, does an effective job smoothing away noise when it does occur. Color accuracy, while only slightly above average in the lab, really impressed us in the field, realistically capturing the autumn scenery that's peaking in our part of the country right now.
Video shooting would've been better with 60p capabilities, but the Full HD clips are still sharp enough to earn strong scores from us, and decent low light sensitivity makes this camera an acceptable—but not ideal—choice for low light videography. Continuous shooting is below average at maximum resolution and quality, but we have a feeling most users will opt for the High-speed Burst HQ scene mode, which fires off 10 shots at 13 frames per second. We also like Canon's new Framing Assist features, one of which actually uses optical stabilization to help keep your subject in frame—very cool.
So ultimately, aside from that new stabilization feature, and of course breaking the nifty-fifty zoom barrier, there's very little about the SX50 that we'd consider revolutionary. Like the SX40, this is basically a consistent, high-performance superzoom, and exactly the kind of camera our scoring system rewards. If you've got a fever and the only prescription is more zoom, then this is an easy recommendation over all else, though indoor sports shooters will want to give the Panasonic FZ200 and its f/2.8 lens a look first.
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