Insect Macrophotography with a Canon Powershot SX60

I was given a new camera for my birthday last month.  As you all probably know, I LOVE my cameras and I take photos with them all the time.  The new camera, a Canon Powershot SX60, was an unlikely interest of mine.  I am not what you might consider an early adopter of new technology.  My husband adores trying out beta versions of software and getting the latest and greatest tech gadgets, but I prefer to wait a while so that most of the kinks are worked out before I spend my money.  Kinks annoy me.  I avoid kinks when possible.  So, it’s very unlike me to want a brand new tech gadget, one that is so new that no one’s reviewed it, like this new camera of mine.  But oh did I want it!

See, I’ve gotten rather into photographing birds recently and none of the lenses I have are quite long enough for shooting good, tight bird shots.  However, a really long telephoto lens can easily set you back $15,000 or more and I certainly don’t have that kind of money to spend.  Superzoom cameras, on the other hand, have some AMAZING zoom capabilities for about $500, though I knew that the overall quality is significantly  lower.  I had tried a Powershot SX50 a while back and loved it, so I was thrilled to see that the SX60 was being released.  It’s got a 65x zoom capability (a zoom equivalent of about a 1300mm lens!!) and can focus on a subject less than a centimeter away.  This seemed like my dream walking around camera, one that I could use to photograph the insects and birds I see everyday.  I was ecstatic when I opened it up on my birthday and have been playing around with it ever since.

There are things I absolutely love about the camera.  The zoom is fantastic!  I can take pretty decent photos of birds from 30-40 feet away:



I can also get some great shots of the moon:



The vibration reduction works well and the camera is surprisingly lightweight, so I can handhold the camera for even the really long shots without too much motion blur.  Neither of the shots above required a tripod, though I did brace my arms on my car for the moon shot.  I feel like this camera does a great job with things that are far away.  There is admittedly quite a bit of noise in the images, especially at high ISO settings (and by high, I mean anything over about 800 ISO), but I feel it does a remarkably good job with telephoto shots given the low cost.  Macro shots…  Well, that’s another matter!

I am not a pro photographer, so I’m sure what follows wouldn’t be considered a true test of the abilities of the SX60, but I did some test shots to see what this camera is capable of.  I don’t expect this camera to take the sort of stunning macro photos my DSLRs are capable of, so I tested it against my tried and true Canon Powershot G12 and my iPhone 5S, the two cameras I’ve carried around with me everywhere for three or four years now and I was hoping to replace with this one.  I wanted to really test the limits of all of the cameras to get a good comparison, so I photographed my trusty fall cankerworm moths under the porch light at night with all three cameras to see how they stacked up.  I set the two Powershots so they would limit themselves to 800 ISO since I knew that the SX60 gets really noisy above that, and I set all of them to auto white balance.

So here are the results.  These are three images straight out of the camera, taken with the three different cameras:

Moths straight out of camera

Moths straight out of camera – iPhone 5S, Canon Powershot SX60, Canon Powershot G12

It’s obvious that you can get closer to the moth with either of the Powershot models than the iPhone 5S, but that’s not surprising.  It doesn’t have any macro ability, but you still get reasonable detail.  Everything turned a little yellow in the iPhone photo, but the SX60 shot wasn’t much better!  The auto white balance on the G12 was the winner here, giving me something close to the actual color of the wall that the moth was photographed on.  You’ll notice too that the shadows get less harsh as you move down the line of photos.  The shadows were bad on the iPhone 5S and a little less pronounced but still obvious on the SX60, but you could see decent detail on the G12.  If I wanted a really high contrast look, the SX60 might be a better option, but I think the G12 produced a more pleasing, better balanced shot.

Even though I like the G12 shot a little better due to better white balance and what I consider a better ability to work with uneven light levels, the SX60 did a little bit better job getting the entire moth in focus.  The wings are similarly focused on all of the shots, but the thorax is a little blurry on the G12 shot.  But let’s take a look at an enlarged detail and see which one does a better job on a fine scale:

Moths enlarged wing details

Moths enlarged wing detail – iPhone 5S, Canon Powershot SX60, Canon Powershot G12

The iPhone 5S is a clear loser here – the details are fuzzy and the resolution is dramatically lower than either of the Powershot models.  To me, the G12 produced the best image here again.  The SX60 shot has a huge variation in the light levels on individual scales, with some completely blown out while others are underexposed.  The light levels are a lot more even in the G12.  What I really notice, however, is the graininess of the SX60 shot.  You can see a lot of noise in the image and there are sections that are muddy and ill-defined.  I think the G12 picked up a lot more detail and generated quite a bit less grain than the SX60.

The conditions in which I took these images are fairly extreme: artificial light from a single source bathing a white wall in light at night.  I tend to take most of my night photos with one of my DSLRs and use a flash, so I probably won’t take a lot of photos in these conditions.  How do the two Powershots stack up in a more typical day shot?  I found a plume moth on the same wall in the shade during the day and shot it with the SX60:

Plume moth SX60

Plume moth SX60

and the G12:

Plume moth G12

Plume moth G12

For both images, I chose an aperture of f/4 and an ISO of 200 and let the cameras choose the shutter speed and white balance.  Neither camera got the white balance quite right, but in these less harsh, daytime conditions, I still think the G12 took the better shot.  The edges of the moth in the SX60 image are just not as crisply well-defined and the contrast between the lights and darks is a little too high.  There’s just not as much detail in the SX60 image relative to the G12’s.  Also, the SX60 chose a lower shutter speed (1/60) than the G12 (1/100), so it took what I think is a less pleasing shot even with a lower shutter speed.  That slower shutter speed might mean the difference between getting a good shot and missing a shot with flighty insects – it’s not ideal!

I’m still playing around with the SX60 and exploring its limitations so I know how to put the camera to best use, but my overall verdict so far is this: I love the SX60’s zoom capabilities and I think it’s going to be great to use for photographing birds and dragonflies, the things for which I really like the extra reach.  I do not at all like it for the macro shots though!  What this unfortunately means is that, rather than replacing my G12 as my walking around camera, I’ve simply added the SX60 onto what I was already carrying!  Granted, this has dramatically increased my ability to get a decent shot of almost anything I might want to photograph, but I’ll admit that carrying around two cameras and a phone is quite a lot of weight for my purse.

Has anyone else used a superzoom camera for macro photography?  I would be interested to hear what you think about any of the models you’ve tried.  I honestly wouldn’t recommend my camera to anyone interested in photographing macro subjects, but are there better options out there?  Leave a comment if you’d like to weigh in!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

18 thoughts on “Insect Macrophotography with a Canon Powershot SX60

    • I have noticed a marked improvement in the noise level of my images when I add an external flash, so that definitely helps. I also like the idea of using a Raynox with it. However, I really wanted this camera to be my walking around camera, the one I carry with me everywhere. It’s a lot bulkier than my G12, which I’d be willing to deal with if the quality was as good. I also have three DSLR camera bodies, multiple macro lenses, and several flash units. If I’m going to carry around the SX60 with a flash and a Raynox, I feel like I might as well just start carrying one of my DSLRs!

      Very happy to know that someone’s gotten good shots out of a superzoom though! I’m going to keep playing around with it – I don’t think I’ve explored its capabilities enough yet and I’m not giving up on it any time soon. I am sure I can get it to do a better job than I have managed so far, though I remain unconvinced that I’m ever going to get the macro shots I really want out of this camera. The SX60 still hasn’t been reviewed extensively yet, but the reviews I’ve seen so far often say that the SX50 was a superior camera to this one and that Canon has sacrificed image quality for crazy high zoom capabilities in this newer model. I most wanted the camera for the zoom, and I’m thrilled with that aspect of it. Just wish that it could do macro shots as well as the distance shots!

  1. One of the challenges of my camera is the poor quality of zoom shots, which would encourage me to invest in a further camera with such ability later this year. I love your photography.

    • Thanks! If you do want to get a new camera, I recommend visiting a few camera shops or a Best Buy or something and asking a lot of questions, then play around with the cameras to see what you like and don’t like about them. If you happen to be in a place where you can rent a camera, even better! Then you can really put it to the test and see what you like and don’t like about a camera before you buy.

      One thing to note: the cameras at a place like Best Buy don’t generally have SD cards in them. It might be worth bringing one of your own and seeing if they’ll let you snap photos from a bunch of different cameras with it, then take it home to compare the shots from each. It would help you decide which camera takes the highest quality images more easily, something you can’t do very well with the few seconds of review time on a tiny screen you get from a camera without an SD card installed.

  2. I found I got better images out of the S2 than I did out of the later S5….Way cleaner sensor. The key is to use flash and drop the ISO to the base, that is the only way to get nice images out of a compact sensor.

    • I feel like I get lovely images out of my G12 at 200 ISO without a flash most of the time, so I’m having a hard time convincing myself that I should carry around my SX60 and a flash unit instead of my G12 for macro and SX60 for distance and just accept that they each have their own strengths. I need to do some more tests with a flash on the SX60 vs. the G12 unaided I suppose and see if the flash solves enough of my problems with the camera for me to be willing to give up my trusty G12. In the meantime, I still LOVE the zoom features of the superzoom, so I intend to carry both cameras around with me for now! I look like an idiot with my big camera bag strapped across the front of my already bulky purse, but I’m an entomologist. We’re not exactly known for our keen fashion sense. :)

  3. I absolutely love my SX50 and use it as my only walk around camera. I have gotten both exceptional zoom photos of birds and macro shots of dragons and damsels. I was fascinated with what you said about the SX60 in comparison to the SX50. It’s too bad that Canon compromised on the macro to get the zoom. I am glad I didn’t sacrifice my 50 to find that out! I have “spoken” with many people online about the difficulty of focusing in macro with the 50. It can be tricky, but once you’ve got it, it’s perfect. Thank you for your tips. After reading what you have to say, I will be keeping my SX50 and be content that I have it! Good luck with your new camera.

    • Most of the reviews of the SX 60 so far seem to be coming from SX50 owners that upgraded and found themselves disappointed because the image quality was lower in the newer model. I myself have only had a chance to play around with an SX50 a bit in a store so I have no real basis for comparison, but enough people seem to be complaining about a decrease in image quality from the 50 to the 60 that it sounds like the SX50 was probably a better choice. That happens a lot with cameras, I’ve noticed – newer isn’t always better!

    • I recently traded in the SX50 for the SX60, and while noise is sometimes a problem, I’ve gotten some truly magnificent shots, handheld, at full zoom. Birds are a passion, but I also get close up and personal with dragonflies, lizards, and even smaller creatures. However, I do post-process in Photoshop to get the most out of each photo. Currently, I’m awaiting the arrival of the Raynox DCR-250. I’m excited to see if it improves my macros. I post a lot of pics on my blog:

      All photos for the last three or so months were taken with the Canon SX60. I’m quite pleased with the camera so far.

      • You know, even though I hate the noise of this camera, I do carry it with me everywhere and I use it ALL THE TIME! I might not think it takes perfect photos, but that doesn’t stop me from using it constantly. I really enjoy it! I just am very aware of its limitations and try to work around them whenever I can.

        Will check out your blog! I always love seeing other nature photos, and it will be great to see what you’ve been able to do with our camera. I look forward to seeing the results of the Raynox addition too – let me know if it works well for you!

        • I finally got the adapter ring I needed to properly attach the Raynox lens to the Canon, and it works beautifully. I’m excited to play with this lens, to see just how close I can get to the wee creatures. :) The SX50 was better in some ways, but there’s no getting around the tremendous reach of the SX60 lens when it comes to capturing nature. I use Topaz DeNoise to deal with that (I’ve found all P&S Canons are noisy to some degree or other), and so far, so good. I have a LOT of photos on the blog. Do stop by when you get a chance.

  4. I cannot get a good moon shot with the Canon SX60, I’ve been hugely disappointed with it. My SX30 was better in this regard and some others. For macro photography and total creative DSLR type control in a tiny package take a look at the SAMSUNG ex2F, it is fantastic. What settings do you use for moon shots?

    • I think I normally set it on auto honestly… I can’t be bothered to mess with settings for night photos with this camera, so I just hope for the best! If I’m serious about getting a good shot, I use one of my DSLRs instead.

    • I have both sx30 and 60, noted the 50 and it’s pretty good. However, so far I can only say good of the 60, especially it’s forte in long distances. My moons are far better with the 60. Good luck, but persevere with the 60!

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