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Towards the end of last year I was asked to go to South Africa for work (it's a hard life, I know!) and decided to spend some time afterwards visiting some of the national parks out there. As I knew I'd be trying to photograph lots of wildlife, often at a distance, I was wary that my Canon Ixus point and shoot camera, as much as I love it, may struggle with capturing animals that were in the distance. For this reason I was on the lookout for a camera with a much bigger zoom but I did not really want to spend super amounts of money on it as I really consider myself an amateur photographer and didn't think I would make efficient use of a camera with lots of advanced features and settings.
Other than the zoom, I didn't have much of a list of criteria except that I wanted one with a rechargeable Li-ion battery as opposed to disposable batteries. During the course of my research into which camera to buy I came across the Canon SX500 IS in the Argos catalogue. Now this camera caught my eye because it had a massive 30x ultra optical zoom plus a 60x digital zoom on top of that, was powered by a Li-ion battery and was reduced to just £139.99 from an original price of 299.99! This camera also had decent reviews from others who'd purchased it and from experts in the field so I decided to go for it.
The SX500 IS is described as a bridge camera. Up until I purchased this camera I had no idea what this meant. It turns out that a bridge camera fills the gap between a point and shoot camera (like my compact Ixus and a more expensive and powerful SLR. One of the main differences between a bridge camera and an SLR is that SLRs have lenses that you can change depending on the conditions and objects that you are trying to photograph whilst a bridge camera has just the one lens.
The camera only comes in one colour - black, has a plastic body and is shaped like a cube. I would describe the camera as fairly compact for one that comes with such a large zoom, coming in at 10.4 x 6.9 x 8.0cm and weighing just 341g including battery and memory card. It's small enough to not take up too much room in your travel baggage but too big to slip into your pocket. There is a deep groove at the front of the camera which I find helps me to hold the camera steady and also allows me to shoot single handily if I need to. As someone who has a petite build and quite small hands I think this camera is great and very easy to hold, though I can see that someone with larger hands may struggle a bit. All in all I would say that this camera is very well built.
The lens, which pops out a little when the camera is switched on, is covered by a lens cap which is attached to the body by a short cable so that you don't lose it - a great feature for me as I do have a habit of dropping/losing things and I can see that this would be the first thing I'd lose if it was not securely attached. The battery compartment is located at the bottom of the camera along with a slot for an SD card and the usb port. Unlike other Canon cameras this is solidly designed and doesn't feel like it's going to come off in my hand when I open it. The camera also comes with a neck strap in the box but a camera case has to be purchased separately.
At the back of the camera there is a large 7.5cm LCD monitor on which to view your shots. This large screen makes it easy to view pictures that you have taken or to frame the picture you want to take before actually take the picture. Rather disappointingly the SX500 does not have an optical viewfinder. Despite the large screen, this would be useful in certain conditions e.g. bright light, where I find there is often too much glare on the screen and so taking photos is a bit difficult. There is the option of varying the brightness of the screen although I think when you're trying to get a quick shot it's not always practical to fiddle around with the screen settings as in the case of animals what you're trying to capture may have moved or disappeared! The lack of a viewfinder seems to be the norm now amongst all new cameras as manufacturers try to make their cameras ever more compact, which I think is a shame really.
The other buttons on the back of the camera and at the top I think are standard for most cameras these days. There is a dial which allows you to move backwards and forwards through your photos by either rotating it or pressing down on one of four points, adjust the settings and scroll through the various menu options which I will discuss later in the review. The camera menu settings are quite similar to my more compact Canon Ixus IS which meant that it didn't take me a long at all to get the hang of using this camera, which is a good thing as I only bought it a couple of weeks before flying out.
The camera has a 16 megapixel sensor, which seems standard for this type of camera. In fact even most compact cameras on sale these days have megapixels in the 10-14 range. This however wasn't really an important requirement for me as I believe the megapixel count is only really important if you're going to be blowing up your pictures to poster size or if you want to crop them without losing too much detail. However, I just want to print standard 6x4 photos and perhaps at a push 7x5 so I didn't pay too much attention to this.
So enough about the appearance of this camera, what's it like in action?! I don't really like to work my way through user manuals before using an item, preferring to test it out myself first to see if I can get it going. In this regard the camera is exceptionally user friendly and intuitive to use. All the menus and settings are logically laid out so things are easy to find. However I am sure having used a previous Canon model also helped. I should point out here that the camera comes with a paper-based quick start guide with a more comprehensive menu on CD. I guess from an environmental point of view this is a good thing as it saves a lot of paper, but sometimes, especially when travelling, it would be useful to have a paper guide to refer to. There's nothing stopping one from printing this up though so it's good to have the choice. The CD also has some photo editing software on it along with the PhotoStitch program which enables you to take several shots that have been taken with the camera slightly moving and then turn these into a panorama.
When it comes to taking photos I would describe myself as an amateur photographer. In this respect the SX500 is great in that it has inbuilt scene detection technology features which automatically determines the brightness of the subject, the contrast, the distance from the subject and the overall hue. It then searches its inbuilt library of 32 different settings to select the perfect one for the scene. This is great as it takes the guesswork out of taking the shot and I get a great picture every time. I'm pretty snap-happy especially when on holiday and this means I can just point and shoot without fiddling around trying to work out what settings I should choose. However if you are more technically minded there is the option to manually select which setting to take pictures with and these include low light, night, beach, snow and underwater. The camera has image stabilisation technology which ensures that pictures do not come out blurry.
The colours of the pictures taken with this camera are true to life - I have found some cameras that I have used in the past tend to make things brighter than they actually are, for example making the sky bluer than it actually is, which is not a problem in this case. If however you like your skies bright and blue and other colours to appear brighter than they actually are then there is a 'super vivid colour' setting to enable you to take shots with brighter colours.
For those fun shots the camera also has an inbuilt fish-eye lens and a miniature effect. It is also possible to take shots in black and white and sepia. The camera is quick to respond and take a picture once the button is pressed which is great when trying to take pictures of animals which have a tendency to move quite fast!
One annoying feature of the camera is the flash. This is one that sits at the top of the camera but requires you to pop it up manually before taking a shot. It took me some time to work out how this worked as I'd set my camera to automatic flash, so that it would decide if a flash was needed depending on the light conditions. However when I pressed the button to take the picture there was no flash! It would be better if there was a mechanism for the flash to automatically pop up if it was needed. The need to manually lift the flash also defeats the purpose of having an automatic flash setting as it still relies on the user to lift the flash up.
As I explained at the start of the review, my main reason for purchasing this camera was the zoom. So how did it fare? In a word 'brilliant!' I set the zoom to be the maximum 30x optical, as I found whilst testing out the camera that shots became a little blurry with the digital zoom. The zoom is operated by a lever at the top of the camera and as it is turned the lens comes out. At full 30x zoom the lens comes out about 5cm from the body of the camera. Using the zoom I have managed to take crisp, sharp pictures of objects that are a good 500m.
From my living room window I took pictures of the chimney of the house that is about 3 roads away and the image has come out very clear with the brickwork clear and sharp. Whilst in South Africa I was able to take pictures of a herd of Rhino whilst perched on a rock about 300m up and these have come out as clear as if I'd been standing next to them! I was also able to take numerous pictures of the brightly coloured birds out there which is very difficult to do without a decent zoom on the camera. There is also a very useful zoom framing assist feature which enables you to zoom out and zoom back in to the same place at the press of a button. This is extremely useful where you have lost track of the subject and you need to reassess by temporarily zooming out. I did find at times that the camera had trouble focussing on the right thing, for example if an animal was hidden behind some trees it would focus on the trees rather than the animal. However this was a problem that those I was travelling with with SLRs also encountered.
The camera also has the option for you to shoot short movies though these take up a lot of memory and so it's not something I have done very often. However during testing I have found the movies to be clear with good sound quality.
The camera is powered by a Li-ion battery and a charger is supplied with the camera. I think the battery has a decent life lasting a couple of days when being used normally. Whilst away I was taking pictures every few minutes and then I found that I needed to charge the camera every day. In this case it would have been good if a spare battery had also been included in the box.
Transferring photos is very easy via the usb cable which is supplied in the box or by inserting the SD card into a laptop with an SD card reader as I tend to do.
If you've made it this far well done and thankyou for pursuing! Overall I am very pleased with this camera and think I have bagged myself a real bargain. Others that I was travelling with had far more sophisticated and expensive cameras and I have to say that to my untrained eye there is very little difference to the shots that we took with the different cameras! I love the zoom on this camera and the zoom framing assist feature is one that is really useful when trying to shoot subjects far away. I am also impressed by how compact this camera is which makes it easier to carry whilst travelling around. There are a couple of features that I was not so impressed with including the lack of viewfinder and the mechanical flash. For these points I've knocked off a star but I still think this is a great buy for the amateur photographer. This review will also be posted on ciao with some example shots.
This camera is one of the smallest bridge cameras on the market with this kind of zoom, most cameras that are similarly sized and priced are usually around the 18x zoom this is 30x (24-720mm equivalent)
One major selling feature of this camera is the fact is has a rechargeable Li-ion battery that lasts around 200 shots, others that are a similar size and price usually take AA batteries that are used up very quickly or you have to buy rechargeable AA batteries separately and have to factor this into the price.
The screen is very large for the size of the camera at 3" and is a good resolution but it is a fixed screen and does not rotate and also there is not a viewfinder option so may be a struggle to compose pictures in low light.
The sensor type is CCD as you would imagine from the price as opposed to CMOS so the picture quality is comparable to an average compact camera of the same brand, the really advantage of this camera is the zoom range, if you are looking at better quality you may want to look at something like the compact SX230 with its 20x zoom or the higher end SX50 bridge camera with 50x Zoom but you will be having to spend more money.