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Canon PowerShot SX280 HS Review

by Bob Atkins, August 2013 (updated October 2013)


The Canon Powershot SX280 HS, (compare prices) (review) is the latest member of Canon’s SX Powershot series which are typically the high end of Canon’s compact digital camera range. It’s also the first Canon digital camera (of any kind) to use the new DIGIC 6 processing engine. The 270SX HS is essentially the same camera as the SX280 HS without the GPS and Wifi, but it’s not distributed in the United States. Color choices are black and red.


 

Who the Powershot SX280 HS is for

The Powershot SX280 HS is for the photographer who wants the convenience of a pocketable digital camera with a wide zoom range plus the ability to apply manual control over camera settings when desired but with the option of fully automatic “point and shoot” modes for ease of operation. The 20x zoom (25mm-500mm equivalent) should cover the needs of most photographers and the ability to shoot 1080HD video at 60fps will appeal to those to whom video capability is important. Though larger than some more basic cameras, the SX280 HS is nevertheless capable of slipping easily into a pants pocket, making it a convenient camera to carry at all times. The built in WiFi will appeal to those photographers who want to take advantage of social media sharing of images, while the GPS function will appeal to those who want to know where they have been!

Special Features

The most notable features of the Canon Powershot SX280 HS are:


  • A 20x zoom (25-500/3.5-6.8) lens
  • Built in WiFi and GPS capability
  • 1080p HD video at 60fps
  • Continuous shooting of full size images at around 3.8 fps
  • High speed burst mode of 7 frames in 0.5s (14fps)
  • 6 mode intelligent hybrid IS system
  • New DIGIC 6 image processing engine

Using the Powershot SX280 HS

Controls on the SX280 HS should be familiar to previous Powershot owners. The top of the camera has the on/off button along with the shutter release which is surrounded by the zoom toggle. All other controls are on the rear of the camera as shown below.

The main mode control dial is at the upper right, and this dial also serves as the rear thumb grip. The dial needs reasonable effort to turn it, so it’s not likely to be accidentally turned when holding the camera. Directly below the main control dial are the playback button and the dedicated video start/stop button.

Below these is the combined 4 way controller surrounded by control wheel, both of which can be used to navigate the menus and set camera operating parameters in conjunction with the central “set” button. The 4 positions of the controller select menus for exposure compensation (top), flash mode (right), self timer (bottom) and focus mode (left). In playback mode the top position brings up the WiFi menus and the bottom button is used to select images for deletion.

The bottom two control buttons control the amount of information the LCD displays (left) and bring up the main camera control menus (right).

The flash is deployed and retracted automatically when needed or selected (so keep your fingers out of the way!). The front “grip” is a vertcical bar about 1/8" deep on the left side of the front of the camera. Though a little unconventional, it’s quite effective and keeps the overall camera profile slim.

Connection to the camera is made via a mini USB port and a mini HDMI port.

Performance and Usability

The Powershot SX280 HS is fairly responsive by digicam standards. It takes about 1.5 seconds after turning on before you can take the first shot. In single shot mode (where the camera refocuses for each shot) the minimum time between shots is around 1.6 seconds. In continuous shooting mode, shot to shot time with AF is around 1 second. With focus set and fixed on the first shot the frame rate increases to about 3.5 frames/second. AF time is typically in the 0.2-0.4s range depending on the light level (it’s slower in low light).

In HS (high speed) mode the SX280 can shoot at about 14 frames/sec, but only for 7 frames so you have to time your high speed sequence quite accurately since the minimum gap between high speed bursts is around 3-3.5 seconds.

Exposure

In general exposure is pretty accurate as shown in the example below.



SX280 HS, ISO 80, 1/500s @ f6.3, 365mm (equiv)

In the above shot the maxmum white level is around 250 out of 255 so highlight detail is retained. However, like many small sensor digicams, there can be a tendency at times to blow out small highlight areas in bright light. The SX280 does have an i-Contrast mode which is supposed to attempt to correct “excessively dark or bright areas” but it often doesn’t appear to have a great deal of effect on the highlights. A better option is probably to use exposure compensation and check the results on the playback image, which will flash any blown out highlights when the display is set to the histogram mode.

Sharpness


SX280 HS, 500mm (equiv), ISO 125, 1/160 @ f6.8

Lens performance is pretty much average for a wide range zoom on a compact camera. There is color fringing on high contrast edges at times but distortion and vignetting appear fairly well controlled, at least in the JPEG images. How much of this is due to the lens and how much is due to aberration correction in software it’s hard to tell since there is no access to the RAW data captured by the sensor. Tested side by side at the same focal length, Powershot SX 280 images were generally not as sharp as those from the Powershot SX 50 that I reviewed recently (review).

Image Stabilization

Effective image stabilization is essential in a camera with a 500mm equivalent lens and the SX280 HS provides it. I found that I could get sharp images from the majority of shots taken at 1/15s with the lens zoomed out fully.

Noise


SX280 HS, 100% crops from images at ISO 80-6400


Noise levels are typical of what you might expect from a small sensor digital camera. Actually it’s not so much noise that degrades image quality at higher ISO settings but the smearing of detail resulting from the noise reduction algorithms which almost looks like a “watercolor” effect at times at high ISO settings. There is no user control over the amount of noise reduction applied, so you can’t balance noise against detail. Things are pretty good up to around ISO 400, though even at ISO 80 there’s a “texture” to smooth areas of the image. ISO 1600 is usable for small images but I’d regard ISO 3200 and certainly ISO 6400 as for emergency only unless you’re just looking for small images to post on the web or share via social media. For example the image below was shot at ISO 6400 and looks pretty good at 600×450 for the web.


SX280 HS image shot at ISO 6400, downsized to 600×450 pixels


Video

When it comes to video, the specification of the SX280 HS are an improvement over those of previous Powershots. For the first time Canon is providing 1080HD at 60 frames/sec, probably as a consequence of the higher processing and throughput speed of the new DIGIC 6 processor. 60fps produces “smoother” video than 24 or 30fps. There are also options for 1080 HD at 30fps, 720 HD at 30fps and 640×480 VGA at 30fps. Super slow motion is available at 640×480 @ 120fps and 320×200 @ 240fps.

Video quality is pretty good, with optical zoom available during shooting. You can hear the zoom function on the recorded audio but the level is quite low. There’s continuous AF while shooting and two zoom speeds. Exposure is fully automatic when shooting video, so you have no control over aperture or ISO, though you can manually set color balance, exposure compensation and chose color effects such as “Vivid,” “Sepia,” “B&W,” etc..

An issue with video on the SX280 HS with respect to the battery status indication in video mode has been widely reported. The battery status indicator seems to indicate “low battery” status even when the camera seems to have enough power for a lot more video recording. In addition, use of the zoom during video recording with the “low battery” warning on has been observed to shut down the camera.

This problem was first seen when the SX280 HS was released with the initial 1.0.0.0 firmware and seems to have persisted through updates 1.0.1.0 and 1.0.2.0 (issued 06/07/13). The 1.0.2.0 update claims to fix the premature display of low battery in movie mode and increase movie shooting capacity by 20% by reducing the power consumption of the zoom mechanism.

My observations using the 1.1.2.0 firmware were as follows. Starting with a fully charged battery I was able to record a total of 54 minutes of 1080 HD video at 60fps. The battery warning appeared after 22 minutes, so for 32 minutes out of the 54 minute recording time the red “low battery” warning was flashing. After 42 minutes the zoom could not be used without the camera shutting down. Note that for 1080 HD at 60fps the recording will stop when the 4GB file limit is reached (about 16.5 minutes), but can be started up again immediately.

54 minutes of total recording time isn’t bad on a single battery charge and for 42 minutes of that the zoom function caused no problems (when used for maybe 10% of the time), which again is pretty reasonable. The only real issue is that you can’t tell how much recording time is left when the red “low battery” warning flashes. It seems to still come on much too early to give effective information on battery condition. It’s also different in still and video modes. At times, even when the “low battery” warning is flashing in video mode, if you power the camera down and turn in back on in still image mode, the battery indicator will show the battery status as 2 out of 3 bars.

It seems to me that Canon has fixed most of the issues reported with the initial firmware. However I’d still be sure to start out with a fully charged battery and keep another fully charged battery for backup if I intended to shoot a lot of video.

GPS

GPS is easy to use. There are two three GPS functions. First, images can be tagged with GPS information (latitude, longitude, altitude). Second, the camera can act as a GPS logger, saving GPS information to the memory card at regular intervals (aproximately once per minute) so that you can track your travels. Note that GPS logging continues even with the camera turned off and so will drain the battery. Canon say that 2 days of data can be recorded starting with a fully charged battery. The third GPS function is to update the time/date setting of the camera from the received GPS time/date data.

WiFi

WiFi can basically send images from the camera to other WiFi enabled devices such as a tablet, smartphone, computer or printer. There is no capability for operation of the camera via a WiFi connection. Transfers are done via Canon’s free Camera Window software (or App) and the CANON iMAGE GATEWAY.

Usability

There are a few features which other SX series powershots have and the SX280 HS lacks and which would make it a more useful camera. First the SX280 HS has no ability to save images in RAW mode. While this may not be of much concern to more casual photographers, those wanting to extract the maximum image quality from the camera will miss the ability to shoot in RAW. Second, there is no ability to manually change the position of the AF zone. In M, AV, Tv and P modes the AF zone is always in the center of the image. You certainly can focus and recompose (and in fact that’s my own default way of working), but some will miss the capability of manually moving the AF zone around. In auto modes the camera will select off center AF zone(s) itself, but with no user control. Third is the lack of any control over the amount of noise reduction which is applied to the images. Also missing is the support for a remote control (wired or wireless) and there is no hotshoe support for Canon speedlites.

Brief Specifications

Sensor 1/2.3" 12.1MP BSI CMOS
Lens 4.5-90/3.5-6.8 (25-500/3.5-6.8 equivalent)
Minimum aperture f8
Shutter Speed 15s – 1/3200s (Tv, M), 1s-1/3200s (all other modes)
ISO 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400 + auto (80-1600)
Size 4.19 × 2.47 × 1.28 in. / 106.4 × 62.8 × 32.6mm
Weight 8.22 oz. / 233g (inc. battery)
Full Specifications from Canon

Conclusions


SX280 HS, ISO 80, 500mm, 1/125s @f6.8

The Canon Powershot SX280 HS, (compare prices) (review) is something of a mixed bag. It scores high marks for the wide zoom range (25-500mm), small size, built in WiFi and GPS, extensive user manual controls and generally good image quality. On the other hand there’s still a small issue with battery status indication when shooting video, there’s no RAW mode, no control over noise reduction, WiFi is limited to uploading images (no remote control capability via WiFi or any other means) and the AF zone position cannot be manually adjusted.

Overall the SX280 HS rates as a good, if not outstanding, camera. It lacks some features that serious photographers might want, but on the other hand it packs a lot of features into a small, pocketable package at a pretty reasonable price.

Alternatives

If you don’t need WiFi, GPS or a pocketable size, I think the Canon Powershot SX50 HS, (compare prices) (review) (which I reviewed last month) is a more capable camera for serious photographers and currently retails for only around $70 more than the SX280 HS. It addresses most of the manual control features lacking in the SX280 (incuding RAW support, control over noise reduction and AF zone location) and adds a tilt and swivel LCD, an EVF, a flash hotshoe, remote control capability and a built in ND filter.

If you do want WiFi, GPS and a pocketable size, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS30, (compare prices) looks like a reasonable alternative to the SX280 HS. It’s a little more expensive, but otherwise is very competitive in terms of features (though still doesn’t offer a RAW mode).

For a considerably higher price (around $150 more than the SX280 HS) the Sony Cybershot DSC-HX50V, (compare prices) offers a lot, including a 30x zoom (24-720mm) and a hotshoe for flash, though, once again, it still doesn’t offer RAW file support.

Canon Powershot SX280
Price as low as $279.99 from 2 retailers
$279.99
$299.00

Canon Powershot SX50 HS, (compare prices) (review). From the Canon website: The PowerShot SX280 HS is a super-charged SX-series model featuring Canon’s very latest proprietary processor, the DIGIC 6 Image Processor, for improved performance and exceptional clarity in low-light scenarios. The camera makes it easy to show off your high quality images and video wherever you are, with enhanced built-in Wi-Fi® technology that lets you share photos with comments on social networking…


Text and photos © 2013 Bob Atkins.

Article revised October 2013.

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Michael Chang , August 30, 2013; 08:48 A.M.

The rate at which these little cameras are progressing is nothing short of miraculous. It represents incredible value compared to just a few short years ago inflation adjusted. 

 

I reckon it won't be long before the CHDK community comes up with a replacement firmware. 

Michael Chang , August 30, 2013; 09:17 A.M.

By the way, all CHDK-enabled Canon Powershot cameras include RAW support. 

http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/Features

 

Current CHDK-supported Canon cameras:

http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK

Bob Atkins , August 30, 2013; 05:59 P.M.

I've used CHDK on other Powershot models and it enables RAW, which means Canon could easily have included it  if they wanted to. I'm sure CHDK will soon appear for the SX280 HS. However I don't like CHDK much since it's a pretty complicated process to install it and a pretty complex user interface to use it. It's really for the dedicated tech-head, not the typical user. I really don't see why Canon didn't include RAW mode unless they are saving it as a feature to add on the next model to entice people to upgrade. Quite a few of the SX series do have RAW mode and since the SX models are supposed to be the "top tier" of Canon's digicams, they really all ought to have it. It costs nothing.

 

My other gripe is not specific to the SX280, but Canon now seem to supply the manual on CD and give just an "Introductory" manual which basically tells you how to install the battery and a memory card and shoot ion program mode. There's nothing you can carry with you as a reference. Well, I suppose you could put the pdf file from the CD on your smartphone (if you have one), but really, how much could it cost to include a printed manual - or even offer one for sale?

Dave Redmann , September 01, 2013; 11:07 P.M.

As much as I like CHDK, using it is a bit of a nuisance: at least on the cameras I've tried it (the two-generations-older SX230 HS, and the much older A570 IS), you have to reinstall the CHDK hack firmware (albeit just from the SD card) every time you turn on the camera. Am I missing something?

Beyond that, one may suspect that the absence of the ability to record raw files (at least with the manufacturers' firmware) is something of a product-differentiation scam. Obviously, it costs basically zero to add that feature, and can be useful to more serious users. Just be aware that some of these camera only give you a real 10 bits or so it raw, not the 12 or 14 you get with a typical DSLR.

P.S.

Can we please stop capitalizing raw? Unlike, e.g., JPEG, TIFF, and DNG, it is not an acronym.

 

Michael Chang , September 02, 2013; 07:36 A.M.

Dave, my A610 boots up with CHDK installed but not enabled. I push the "Alt" button to enable it which will then function with a previously loaded script, or hit the "Func. Set" to choose another script or set shooting parameters. 

 

It's true that CHDK isn't very well documented nor intuitive to use, but once over the hurdle, the availability of CHDK's enhancement alone will sway me to buy a Canon Powershot over other brands. 

 

In some ways, for me, a CHDK equipped Powershot can serve as a DSLR replacement in many circumstances except where shutter lag can't be tolerated or DoF is required. Of course it can't do everything, and I guess that's why we all have multiple cameras each suited to a particular set of needs. :-) 

Bob Atkins , September 02, 2013; 11:26 P.M.

I'm not sure I'd call the lack of RAW (or raw) a product differentiation scam. It's more of a product differentiation scheme. A lot of cameras could have a lot of functions that they don't have, but there's no law saying the camera manufacturers have to give us everything in every camera. It would be nice if they did, but they don't and they don't pretend to. It would be a scam if they said it was there and it wasn't!

 

And yes, raw files are raw files not R.A.W files. However the convention seems to be to capitalize the various formats. Canon call it RAW, not raw, so that's what I'm sticking with.

Ahmed Abdelhafez , September 20, 2013; 05:34 P.M.

I have a big issue with Canon and I really wish that someone there from Canon is reading this and answer my questions, Why canon keep on using 12MP sensor for many of its new cameras for the last few years? it is just not understandable. I have been using digital camera from canon for more than 10 years, since 2001, but after that I had to look for other brands since I couldn't find some good features I trully need. With this issue, for instance, can anyone explain why Canon had to go down from 14MP on canon SX210 to 12MP sensor of the later model of SX230, and kept on using this sensor for many subsequent models? unless Canon has huge stock of that sensor and couldn't finish it without stiking it in many of its models. I mean it is so behind other camera brands and this forced photographers like myself to look up for other manufacture. I'm afraid that Canon maybe losing the comptition already.


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