Canon PowerShot SX20 IS Review

The new Canon PowerShot SX20 IS is a super-zoom camera that comes equipped with a 20x zoom lens that has a focal length range that is comparable to 28-560mm. The Canon SX20 IS is the successor to the SX10 IS model, and in addition to high-definition video (720p), it also includes a dedicated movie button that allows for rapid access to movies when the camera is in still mode, as well as instant stills shooting while the camera is recording a movie.

There is also a micro HDMI connector, which makes it simple to play back film on TVs that are compatible with the device. The number of megapixels has been increased from 10 to 12, and Canon has included image stabilization to help ensure that the majority of your shots are sharp. Additionally, there are technologies known as Ultrasonic Motor (USM) and Voice Coil Motor (VCM) that promise quick, accurate, and quiet zooming and focusing capabilities.

The SX20’s headlining specs include full manual control over the aperture as well as the shutter speed, a 2.5-inch vari-angle LCD II, an electronic viewfinder, and an external hot-shoe. We find out if the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS can compete with the industry’s leading super-zoom cameras.

Main Features

  • 12MP – 1/2.3-inch CCD Sensor
  • ISO 80 – 1600
  • 28-560 mm F2.8-5.7 Zoom Lens
  • Optical Image Stabilization
  • 2.50″ Fully Articulated Screen
  • Electronic viewfinder
  • 1.0fps continuous shooting
  • and HD at 30fps Video Recording
  • 600g. 128 x 88 x 87 mm

Ease of Operation

When it was first released, the SX20 had the same official price in the United States as its predecessor, the SX10 model, although the price was somewhat higher in the United Kingdom and across Europe. This tiny camera has the appearance of a DSLR and is equipped with a flexible 20x image-stabilized optical zoom. It has a wide 35mm equivalent focal range of 28mm to 560mm, which places it in direct competition with cameras such as the Olympus SP-570UZ, Panasonic DMC-FZ38, and Casio EX-FH20.

The bodywork of the SX20 IS is constructed out of hard plastic, much like its predecessor, and it offers a grip that is significantly larger than the norm. This is mainly because the four alkaline AA batteries that are necessary for power are slotted into the base of the device. While this does add to the total weight as well as a feeling of sturdiness (at 560g), a matt black finish provides an overall air of refinement, with the metallic silver-grey around the shutter button and the left-hand side of the handle serving as a point of differentiation (if the camera is viewed lens on).

However, if you are searching for a camera that can fit into the pocket of your jacket, you should go elsewhere. Due to the fact that the dimensions of the SX20 IS are not significantly more compact than those of an entry-level DSLR, you will either need to attach the provided strap in order to carry it over your shoulder or make an investment in a dedicated camera bag in order to shield it from the elements and observer’s prying eyes while you are out taking pictures.

Body & Design

The only thing that is included in the package is a leaflet that provides very little information on how to get started with the product, while the entire manual is offered on a CD. While you’re outdoors shooting and can’t find the setting you want, not having a manual to hand to rapidly scan through is a right royal nuisance. The latter is OK if you’re bound to a PC, but it’s an annoyance when you’re out in the field.

The new Hints & Tips tool that has been integrated into the user interface helps to somewhat compensate for this by offering concise explanations of important features. However, it is evident that this feature does not provide as much information as the complete manual does. More positively, a hot shoe is provided for an auxiliary flash in addition to the built-in elevated version. Additionally, the back 2.5-inch LCD screen can fold out and twist (or in Canon terminology, ‘vari angle’).

This monitor tilts forward through 180 degrees and backward through 90 degrees, allowing users to achieve otherwise awkward angle shots in situations where they can’t quite get their eyes level with the electronic viewfinder of the camera. For example, when shooting low to the ground or over the heads of a crowd, this monitor can tilt forward through 180 degrees and backward through 90 degrees.

As was said before, the Canon SX20 IS has a great zoom range, and in comparison to its counterpart on a DSLR, it is not only considerably more portable and less expensive, but it also has the benefit of being able to record video clips, which is a distinct competitive advantage. The video quality has been improved to 720p HD, which is a step in the right direction for Canon, but it is still not as good as full HD 1920×1080 pixel footage. This was one of our primary complaints with the prior model.

It also has a dedicated button on the back that enables the video function regardless of the shooting mode that you are currently using, and it can record stereo sound thanks to microphones that are positioned on each side of the lens. This is located at the back of the camera and is easily accessible by the user’s thumb. It is denoted by a red dot, which is the universal symbol for a record button.

When looking at the back of the SX20 IS, you will notice a scattering of buttons and dials that are adequately big, well-labeled, and rather active. The buttons and dials are neatly spaced out. These run in an L-shape from the flash button located on the far left of the camera, across the familiar hump that is reminiscent of a DSLR and houses the electronic viewfinder, built-in flash, and hotshoe, and finally to a shooting dial located on the other side of the camera that features no less than 13 user-selectable modes. The feel of the mode dial has been adjusted by Canon so that it will no longer shift into an incorrect position if the camera is placed in a pocket or bag.

On the forward slope of the grip itself, we find a main shutter release button ringed by a rocker switch for adjusting the monstrous zoom. Adjacent to the dial for selecting the shooting mode is a recessed but large enough on/off button that illuminates orange when the camera is turned on.

When the power button is pressed, the quick and responsive SX20 IS prepares itself for the first shot in a little more than a second. The zoom barrel extends to its widest setting, and either the rear 230k-dot LCD or the 235k-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF) comes to life so that the photographer can compose the image. The display button is responsible for toggling between the electronic viewfinder and the LCD, in contrast to most competing cameras, which have a dedicated button for this purpose.

Instead, the camera can be configured such that the electronic viewfinder (EVF) comes up automatically when it is turned on only if the LCD screen is towards the camera’s body. Alternately, this form of shot composition is made available if the screen is oriented such that it faces the user.

As you would expect from a model aimed at enthusiasts, the shutter delay is completely imperceptible, and it takes significantly less than a second for the camera to commit full-resolution images to memory when shooting at the highest resolution. As such, there are no complaints regarding the operational speed of the camera.

The zoom is also very responsive, so much so that pinpointing an exact point in its range can be difficult. However, in an unusual twist, markings detailing incremental steps throughout its range are etched onto the top of the lens barrel. The zoom is accompanied by the sound of a low mechanical whirr, and it is also very responsive.

You just need to give the lever a very slight shove and you’ll be able to browse through these in tiny stages. Your zoom shifts will be commendably smooth and devoid of jerks thanks to an Ultra Sonic Motor (USM), which is displayed on the barrel of the lens.

Because the Canon is relatively large, it is most comfortable to hold the camera with both hands. Fortunately, there is a sufficient ridge to the left, when viewing the camera from the rear, and at the back by the hinge for the LCD, allowing the user to hold the camera in this manner without accidentally leaving thumbprints on the screen.

Moving on to the back of the SX20 IS, users who are familiar with the Canon PowerShot range will recognize the direct print button that is located in the top left corner of the LCD. This button also serves as a user-assignable shortcut key in shooting mode and can be used to perform functions such as auto exposure lock or red-eye reduction.

In close proximity to this is the rubber eye relief for the electronic viewfinder, which is just a short distance away from a dioptric adjustment wheel that is partially recessed. Additionally, on the right-hand side of the EVF is the record button that was previously mentioned, which is used for recording video clips.

Unhappily, the full extent of the optical zoom can be used when filming, and when combined with the stereo sound, this means that video clips look better than expected from your typical compact camera, despite the fact that they cannot compete with the quality of footage captured by a dedicated camcorder.

There is a trio of buttons located on the top right side of the camera rear. These buttons are built into the back of the curved grip such that they are readily accessible by the thumb. It should come as no surprise that the one on top is used for picture playback. Because of its location, you are able to swiftly review the outcomes of a snap while keeping your finger resting over the button that triggers the shutter release for the next prospective photo.

The next button down brings up a slider for exposure compensation (+/- 2EV), or if the user is still in playback mode, it allows a sequence of images to be “jumped” to find the one you’re looking for more quickly in this age of ever-larger card capacities, search criteria determined either by a number of images, categories or folders. Pressing the next button down brings up an exposure compensation slider (+/- 2EV).

When in playback mode, the user may delete photographs by pressing the bottom button of the three smaller buttons. When in capture mode, the user can shift the otherwise center AF point to another part of the screen by pressing the bottom button. This is accomplished in combination with the four-way control pad that features a center button labeled “function set” and a fussy scroll wheel that surrounds it right below.

A method of manually determining focus may be found in each of the four corners of this pad, at the twelve o’clock position. When you press this button, a distance slider will appear on the right hand side of the screen, and an expanded piece of the image’s center region will appear so that the focus may be chosen more precisely. Moving across the available range is accomplished by using the scroll wheel, which has a tendency to be too sensitive.

At the three o’clock position, there is a control for adjusting the ISO, which here has a range that goes from ISO 80 all the way up to ISO 1600. At the six o’clock position, there is a control for switching between single and continuous shooting, as well as for selecting one of the self-timer options that are available. When we move our viewfinder to the nine o’clock position, we come across a close-up option that offers both macro and super macro settings.

When you are in any of the capture modes and press the function/set button in the middle of the camera, an L-shaped toolbar that is familiar to users of Canon cameras appears on the screen. This toolbar offers pull-out toolbars that contain additional options from the range when you come to rest in a particular setting.

Only the resolution and picture size for stills and video are highlighted from the range while you are in auto mode. However, if you shift into one of the more creative PASM modes and push the button again, you will have the ability to select from any of the options that are now fully available.

These include the ability to adjust the white balance, choose from the well-known Canon ‘My colors’ modes (of which we preferred the ‘vivid’ setting for added visual punch), the opportunity to bracket exposures or focus, and the ability to adjust the intensity of the flash, and the ability to switch between evaluative, center-weighted, and spot metering. Other features include the ability to shoot in RAW format and the ability to switch between evaluative, center-weighted, and spot metering

Quality of the Image

During the course of our evaluation, the Canon PowerShot SX20 has generated photographs of a quality that was far higher than typical. The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS’s primary shortcoming in terms of image quality is noise; at an ISO of 400, the camera exhibits some noise along with blurring of details and a small desaturation of colors. As the ISO is increased, noise and loss of information become increasingly noticeable until you reach the highest possible value of 1600.

The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS did a good job of handling chromatic aberrations, while there was some purple fringing visible in high-contrast scenes due to the camera. The images taken with a 12-megapixel camera came out of the camera with a default sharpen setting that was a little on the soft side. In order to get the images sharper, you will either need to sharpen them further in an application like Adobe Photoshop, or you will need to increase the level of sharpening that is done in-camera.

The nighttime shot turned out quite well, and the fact that the maximum shutter speed was 15 seconds meant that you could catch sufficient light for almost any scenario. Even though there is a lot of lens distortion and shadows at such a short distance, the performance of the camera’s macro mode is a standout highlight, allowing you to focus as close to the subject as 0 centimeters away from the object of your photograph. The built-in flash did a fantastic job indoors, producing images free of red-eye and with enough exposure overall. Anti-shake is a feature that distinguishes this camera from its rivals and is one that functions exceptionally well whether the camera is held by hand in low-light settings or when the telephoto end of the zoom range is being utilized.


Body typeSLR-like (bridge)
Max resolution4000 x 3000
Other resolutions3840 x 2160, 3264 x 2448, 2592 x 1944, 1600 x 1200, 640 x 480, 320 x 240
Image ratio w:h4:3, 16:9
Effective pixels12 megapixels
Sensor photo detectors12 megapixels
Sensor size1/2.3″ (6.17 x 4.55 mm)
Sensor typeCCD
ProcessorDigic 4
ISOAuto, 80 ,100, 200, 400, 800, 1600
White balance presets6
Custom white balanceYes
Image stabilizationOptical
Uncompressed formatNo
JPEG quality levelsFine, Normal
Focal length (equiv.)28–560 mm
Optical zoom20×
Maximum apertureF2.8–5.7
AutofocusContrast Detect (sensor)Multi-areaSingleLive View
Digital zoomYes (4x)
Manual focusYes
Macro focus range0 cm (0″)
Number of focus points9
Articulated LCDFully articulated
Screen size2.5″
Screen dots230,000
Touch screenNo
Live viewYes
Viewfinder typeElectronic
Minimum shutter speed15 sec
Maximum shutter speed1/3200 sec
Aperture priorityYes
Shutter priorityYes
Manual exposure modeYes
Subject / scene modesYes
Built-in flashYes (Pop-up)
Flash range6.80 m
External flashYes (Hot-shoe)
Flash modesAuto, On, Off, Red-Eye, Slow Sync, Fill-in
Continuous drive0.7 fps
Self-timerYes (2 or 10 sec, Custom)
Metering modesMultiCenter-weightedSpot
Exposure compensation±2 (at 1/3 EV steps)
Resolutions1280 x 720 (30 fps) 640 x 480 (30 fps), 320 x 240 (30, 15 fps)
Storage typesSD / SDHC / MMC / MMC Plus / HC MMC Plus
USBUSB 2.0 (480 Mbit/sec)
Remote controlNo
Environmentally sealedNo
Battery description4 x AA batteries (Alkaline or NiMH)
Weight (inc. batteries)600 g (1.32 lb / 21.16 oz)
Dimensions128 x 88 x 87 mm (5.04 x 3.46 x 3.43″)
Orientation sensorYes
Timelapse recordingNo


One year after the release of the SX10 IS, the new SX20 model adds a few of significant upgrades to an already appealing appearance. However, the camera still does not give nearly enough to grab the title for best super-zoom.

The only significant changes between the SX20 IS and its predecessor is the inclusion of high-definition movie recording and a purported “improvement” to 12 megapixels in the camera’s resolution. The former has been more successful than the latter has been thus far. The ability to record high-definition video with stereo sound as well as the capacity to make complete use of the 20x optical zoom is a significant selling point for this camera as it is something that not many other cameras on the market currently provide. When it comes to still shots, things aren’t looking so good: noise and a loss of fine detail start showing up at ISO 400, whereas on the SX10 these problems don’t start showing up until ISO 800. It appears that the shift to additional megapixels has caused a sacrifice in the overall image quality at higher ISO speeds, hence reducing this camera’s capacity to function in low-light conditions.

Other important features have been thoughtfully preserved, such as the tilt-and-swivel LCD, a dedicated record button for instant video clips, a clear electronic viewfinder, and an external hot-shoe. These features combine to make this digital camera appealing to an enthusiastic hobbyist, particularly given the availability of a full spectrum of manual shooting modes. The only snag is that there is still no support for the RAW file format, which forces potential customers to look at Canon’s G11 small camera instead because it is the only model in its class that can shoot in RAW. There are a number of competing super-zoom cameras that also support RAW, the most notable of which being the Panasonic FZ38 and the Olympus SP-570 UZ; therefore, if this is an essential feature, there are other options available within the same category.

Pros & Cons

Good For
  • Image Stabilization
  • Screen That Can Be Moved Around
  • High Shutter Speed of 1/3200 of a Second
  • Electronic Viewfinder Constructed Internally
Need Improvement
  • No shooting in RAW format
  • A Lack of a Touch Screen
  • No Focusing Based on Face Detection
  • No Full HD Video

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