Thanks to a hard-to-beat combo of very good image quality, a generous optical-zoom reach, ease of use, and flexible shooting options, every iteration of Canon's PowerShot SX line seems to end up at the top of our pocket-megazoom cameras chart. The latest compact camera in the family, the 20X-optical-zoom Canon PowerShot SX260 HS, is another winner. Because it covers so many bases, it's one of the easiest point-and-shoot cameras to recommend for any user.
The 12-megapixel PowerShot SX260 HS's versatile lens, assorted shooting modes, excellent image and video quality, and manual controls all contribute to its high rating. You'll find only a few weak spots in this camera: It doesn't shoot RAW, it has mediocre battery life, and audio capture is a bit hissy while it's shooting video. Due to its extensive zoom range, it also has a relatively narrow aperture at the wide-angle end--but every pocket megazoom we've ever seen also has that shortcoming. See also Group test: what's the best compact camera?
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS: Performance, Image Quality, and Video Quality
In our subjective tests for image quality, the PowerShot SX260 HS earned a score of Very Good in nearly all of our testing categories, namely in exposure quality, colour accuracy, and lack of distortion. In image sharpness it received a rating of Good.
The camera's sharpness score suffered a bit due to a visible moiré effect in our target-chart sharpness test, and the camera's images looked a bit soft in our still-life test. colours appeared bright and vibrant without the oversaturation we commonly see from many of today's cameras, and the SX260 HS's auto-exposure mode produced excellent white-balance and exposure levels in our hands-on tests.
In video capture, the SX260 HS again ranked among the best models we've tested in the pocket megazoom category, generating good contrast, pleasing colours, and fine details in well-lit situations. The test footage we shot in low light wasn't as impressive, but due to its performance in our bright-lighting test, we rated the PowerShot SX260 HS's overall video quality as Very Good.
As mentioned before, audio pickup through the SX260 HS's top-mounted stereo microphones is a bit of a weakness. Audio capture in video mode sounded hissy to our subjective jury's ears, so we gave the camera an Audio score of Fair in our tests.
The battery life is a bit of a downer, too; the lack of long-lasting juice is beginning to look like a common failing among many of Canon's recent point-and-shoots. The PowerShot SX260 HS has a CIPA rating of 230 shots per charge of its lithium ion battery, which falls in the Fair range of our battery-life scores.
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS: Shooting Modes and Features
With a 20X-optical-zoom (25mm to 500mm) lens and a pocketable body, the 12-megapixel Canon PowerShot SX260 HS is already a versatile camera in terms of hardware. When you consider its diverse range of shooting modes, the camera becomes the photographic equivalent of a Swiss Army knife.
In addition to traditional manual controls for focus, aperture (F3.5 wide-angle to F6.8 telephoto maximum aperture), shutter speed (1/3200 of a second to 15 seconds), and ISO levels (ISO 100 to 3200), the SX260 HS has a number of creative shooting options to rival any competing pocket megazoom. It's a solid performer at both ends of its zoom range, with macro capabilities that let you get within 2 inches of your subject, and excellent optical stabilization when you're zoomed all the way. At full telephoto, the camera's stabilization system "floats" a bit, making it easier to keep faraway subjects in frame. In my hands-on tests, handheld shots that I took at full telephoto came out impressively sharp.
Along with the usual array of scene modes (Portrait, Smooth Skin, Sunset, Snow, Panorama Assist, Fireworks), the camera's scene menu has a few unique options. Smart Shutter, for instance, automatically snaps three photos when it senses that someone in front of the lens is smiling, making it an alternative for self-timer shots. And the SX260 HS's High-Speed Burst HQ mode shoots ten full-resolution shots per second, with focus and exposure settings locked at the first image in the sequence.
For low-light shooting without a flash, the camera has two dedicated scene modes that each go about their business differently. The Handheld NightScene mode uses burst shooting with exposure bracketing to create an HDR-like image in dark environments. The Low Light mode shoots a single 3-megapixel image, as the camera combines adjacent pixels on the sensor to increase light sensitivity. In my tests, the Handheld NightScene mode produced noticeably sharper, more-detailed images in dark settings, but both did a good job in low-light situations.
The camera also has a separate mode-dial entry for its digital creative effects, which include a fish-eye simulator, a miniature mode that lets you manually adjust the vertical and horizontal plane of focus, black-and-white and vibrant-colour effects, and a vignette filter that simulates a toy camera. Included as well are Canon's colour Accent and colour Swap modes, which remain the best implementations of single-colour highlight features I've seen in any point-and-shoot camera. With these modes, you can isolate a single colour in a black-and-white shot or replace all instances of one colour with another in your photo, as you're shooting it.
The creative options extend to the SX260 HS's movie-capture modes, which max out at 1080p capture at 24 frames per second. In the camera's Super Slow Motion movie mode, you can shoot 640-by-480-pixel video at 120 fps and 320-by-240-pixel video at 240 fps. Miniature Mode is also applicable while you're shooting video, but the camera records at 6 fps and plays the video back at 30 fps to simulate an old-timey, fast-motion movie.
Other notable options on the SX260 HS's mode dial include a "Quiet" mode, which completely silences the shutter and disables the flash to help you capture that stealthy photo of a sleeping baby or a wedding ceremony, and a "Live" mode that helps novice shooters adjust the brightness, colour saturation, and colour temperature via on-screen sliders rather than delving into manual controls.
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS: Hardware and Design
The PowerShot SX260 HS feels sturdily built, and it looks a bit more streamlined than most high-zoom pocket cameras thanks to its minimalist handgrip. A slender, raised bar on the front of the camera works well as a handgrip when you hold it with your middle finger, and a slight groove around the top edge of the camera provides a comfortable resting spot for your index finger when you're shooting one-handed.
The top of the camera hosts the pop-up flash, the shutter button ringed by the zoom control, the power button, and the camera's built-in stereo microphones. The back of the camera hosts a mode dial, which lies relatively flat on the surface and locks into place firmly with each mode selection.
Accompanying the mode dial and the 3-inch LCD screen are five more controls that handle most of the commonly used settings: a dedicated video-record button, a playback button, a four-way directional pad/scrollwheel (for quick access to exposure compensation, flash settings, macro/manual focus, and the self timer), a display-settings button, and a menu button. As for ports, the SX260 HS has a rubberized cover for a Mini-USB connector and a Mini HDMI connector on the side, as well as a metal-backed plastic door that covers the battery and SD/SDHC/SDXC slot on the bottom, next to the tripod mount.
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS: GPS Features
The Canon PowerShot SX260 HS's GPS features are as basic as they come, but they work well when you're adding geotagged images to photo-sharing services that support mapping. The SX260 HS doesn't have any in-camera maps like the ones found in pocket-zoom competitors such as the Samsung WB850F, but it does add information to each photo's EXIF data that you can use with various mapping services.
The camera requires a clear view of the sky--and depending on your immediate environment, it can take a minute or so to establish your GPS connection. I tested the PowerShot SX260 HS's GPS functions in New York; at street level with a lot of tall buildings around, the initial GPS connection needed about 2 to 3 minutes, and the camera had trouble maintaining the connection. Once I went up to the roof of a building with a clear view of the sky, the satellite link-up took less than a minute and was less problematic.
After you create that connection, you have the option of turning on the camera's GPS Logger feature to refresh your location data periodically, even when the camera is turned off. As you might guess, leaving the GPS Logger feature on all the time will have a significant impact on battery life, so it's a good idea to use the feature sparingly if you don't carry an extra battery.
I didn't find much to look at on the camera in terms of geodata--pressing the Display button during playback showed raw longitude and latitude data for each geotagged shot--but once I offloaded a tagged photo to a computer, the info integrated seamlessly with the mapping functions in Flickr, Picasa, and SmugMug.
As with the majority of GPS-enabled cameras, the SX260 HS's GPS functions are a "nice to have" feature for frequent travelers and anyone who likes to geotag images. If you want in-camera mapping, you'd be better served by the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 or the Samsung WB850F. Outside of its GPS features, however, the PowerShot SX260 HS is simply one of the best pocket-megazoom cameras we've tested, and its geotagging works well with popular photo-sharing services.