Canon PowerShot ELPH 520 HS Review: Lots of Zoom, Little Camera

by Reads (9,419)
Editor's Rating

Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

    • Image/Video Quality
    • 7
    • Features
    • 8
    • Design / Ease of Use
    • 7
    • Performance
    • 6
    • Expandability
    • 0
    • Total Score:
    • 5.60
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10


  • Pros

    • Small size, big 12x zoom
    • Good images and video
    • Nice low light performance
  • Cons

    • Tiny control buttons
    • Accepts only Micro SD
    • Some overexposure

Quick Take

The 520 HS is a success. Canon's engineers fit a 12x zoom inside a compact camera with a highly capable sensor/processor combo. However, ergonomics suffer as a result of a design overhaul.

Canon’s “ELPH” series of small digital cameras have long had a reputation for consistent high quality thanks to an elegant appearance, smooth operation and very good image quality. The PowerShot ELPH 520 HS (IXUS 500 HS in Europe) is one of two new ELPH models which, despite their small size, contain a long 12x optical zoom lens (28-336mm, 35mm film camera equivalent).

Canon PowerShot 520 HS

Unlike the other model (the ELPH 530 HS), the ELPH 520 HS does not have some of the more cutting-edge digital camera features such as a touch screen, GPS or built-in wireless capability. Nevertheless, the 520 HS combines an attractive appearance with solid specifications.  Does the PowerShot 520 HS live up to the quality of previous ELPH cameras?


The Canon PowerShot 520 HS is a good-looking, small camera with a long zoom lens. It has an advanced 1/2.3-inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor plus Canon’s latest DIGIC 5 processor. It contains only 10 megapixels, which is a contrast to most Point and Shoot cameras that pack 14, 16 and even 18 megapixels into their 1/2.3-inch sensors. However, this lower resolution is a potentially very good thing, as too many megapixels can have a negative effect on low light performance. Kudos to Canon for opting out of the megapixel race in this instance.

The camera has a large, 3.0-inch LCD screen and can shoot 1080p full HD videos with stereo sound. It has a Smart Auto mode which will automatically select the best settings for the camera, which I suspect will be its most popular shooting mode. The camera also has a Program AE mode which permits the user to adjust most camera functions. The 520 HS does not allow direct control over shutter speed and aperture, nor does it have shutter or aperture priority modes.

I brought the ELPH 520 HS with me to Alabama, where I spent several days enjoying the beautiful spring foliage. The camera was an excellent traveling companion, fitting nicely in my pocket. It was great to have long zoom capability in such a compact camera. While the weather was often overcast and rainy, there were periods of sunshine that I tried to take advantage of. Overall I was pleased with the 520 HS, though there were some aspects of the camera that I found less-than-perfect. Let’s take an in-depth look at this small-footprint, big-zoom camera.

Build & Design
The Canon 520 HS has a well-constructed metal and plastic body in a stylish, rectangular shape. The lens is recessed when the camera is turned off, so as not to disturb the camera’s smooth lines. The camera’s dimensions are 3.43 inches (87.1mm) wide, 2.12 inches (53.9mm) high and 0.76 inches (19.2mm) thick. It weighs 5.47 oz. (155g), including the battery and memory card. The camera is surprisingly small and lightweight for a camera with a 12x optical zoom.

Canon PowerShot 520 HS

Included is a lithium-ion battery, battery charger, wrist strap, USB cable, a brief owner’s manual and a CD which contains the full version of the manual as well Canon’s software, including Image Browser EX and PhotoStitch (for creating panoramas). The camera is available in four colors; black, bright red, bright blue and silver. The camera I reviewed was a nice-looking shiny black, but the blue and red versions are the most appealing to my eyes. Canon’s website shows a list price of $299.99 but you can expect it to be available for substantially less.

It’s evident that Canon made some compromises in order to be able to put a 12x zoom lens into such a small camera. The large, user-friendly buttons and circular controller that are on the rear panel of previous ELPH cameras are gone, replaced by seven tiny buttons. The camera uses micro SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards, rather than the standard-sized memory cards used by other Canon cameras, and a smaller lithium-ion battery with less capacity.

Ergonomics and Controls
The ELPH 520 HS is small enough so that it can be operated by one hand. Canon has cleverly established a gripping surface at the front of the camera by raising the Canon logo. A decent grip can be had on the rear of the camera by resting your thumb on five raised dots. Use of the wrist strap is necessary as, while the camera feels solid and well-built, it’s not meant Canon PowerShot 520 HSto survive a drop on a hard surface. The camera’s flash is found at the top corner of the front plate, so care must be taken when using the flash not to block it with the fingers of the left hand.  The ring around the lens contains holes for the stereo microphones and holes for the speaker. It also includes an auto-focus assist/self timer lamp.

The camera contains a covered port on one side where you can attach a USB cord and a mini HDMI plug for connecting to an HD television. The top plate of the camera includes a playback button that also turns on the camera to its playback mode when you only want to review your photos. It’s a useful feature that I’ve seen in other Canon cameras.

Next to the playback button are a switch for selecting either Program AE mode or Smart Auto mode, an on/off button, and a shutter button, which is surrounded by a zoom control ring. I had no problems using any of the controls on the top plate. The camera’s bottom plate includes separate compartments for the battery and the micro SD card. The plastic covers for these compartments seem rather fragile. A sturdy, metal tripod connector is also found on the bottom plate.

The camera’s rear plate is mostly taken up by its 3.0-inch, 460,000-dot LCD monitor in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The seven tiny Canon PowerShot 520 HSbuttons are clustered together on the right side of the LCD. A red dedicated movie button is at the top of the group, followed by buttons for exposure compensation, macro, flash, display, function/set and menu. Several of the tiny buttons are also used to navigate through the menu items on the LCD screen. I found these buttons difficult to manipulate due to their small size. This is in direct contrast to the very positive experiences I have had in the past with Canon cameras that used large buttons and an easy-to-use circular controller.

Menus and Modes
Although the controls differ from those of other PowerShot models, the menu system is essentially the same, which is a good thing. The 520 HS uses two types of menus, a main menu activated by pressing the menu button and a shortcut menu called up by pressing the function/set button. The menu options are very limited while in Smart Auto mode, but are much more comprehensive in Program AE mode. Each menu selection includes a brief, helpful explanation at the bottom. More experienced users can opt to turn off these explanations. Canon’s menu system is one of the best available for point-and-shoot cameras.

The Canon PowerShot ELPH 520 HS has three basic shooting modes:

  • Smart Auto Mode: The camera selects the most appropriate settings based on 58 pre-defined shooting situations. Factors considered include whether people are still, in motion, have shadows on their face, smiling, sleeping, whether the subject is a baby and whether there are children in motion. The camera also sets the appropriate settings when shooting scenery, both at close range and at a distance. The camera considers the background as well, whether it is normal, backlit, dark, sunset or spotlight. In some shooting conditions the camera will take multiple shots and select the best image. The camera will decide whether to apply optical image stabilization in order to reduce camera shake.
  • Program AE Mode: This mode allows access to all menu options, including ISO (100-3200), white balance and all scene modes, although the camera automatically selects the aperture and shutter speed. There are many additional modes that can be accessed under Program AE, including portrait, smooth skin, smart shutter (automatically snaps the shutter as soon as the camera detects a smile, two seconds after it detects a wink and two seconds after it detects a new face), high-speed burst, handheld night scene (allows shooting at night without a tripod by combining several shots which reduce camera shake and noise), low light, fish-eye effect, miniature effect, toy camera effect, soft focus, monochrome, super vivid, poster effect, color accent, color swap, underwater, snow, fireworks, long shutter, and my colors (has settings for various color tones and allows the user to adjust contrast, sharpness, color saturation, and other factors). There’s also a mode for stitch assist, which allows the user to “stitch” several pictures together to form an ultra-wide panorama. This method is cumbersome and far less useful than the auto panorama feature found in most recent cameras.
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Soft Focus
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Super Vivid
  • Movie Mode: The camera captures movies at 1920 x 1080 (full HD) at 24 fps, 1280 x 720 at 30 fps, 640 x 480 at 30 fps and 320 x 240 at 30 fps.  Audio is recorded in stereo and optical zoom is available during recording. The camera has a Super Slow Motion mode, which can shoot at 640 x 480 at 120 fps or 320 x 240 at 240 fps. You can shoot a movie with a miniature effect, in which objects look like miniature models and move at high speed. Movie Digest is a feature which automatically records a short video clip (up to approximately four seconds) every time you shoot a still image. The camera then combines an entire day’s worth of clips into a single video.

Like almost all small cameras, the ELPH 520 HS does not have a viewfinder, but it does have a very nice, sharp 3.0-inch LCD monitor with 460,000 pixel resolution in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The monitor provides 100% coverage and can be adjusted to one of five brightness levels.

I found the LCD monitor displayed sharp images, realistic colors and, when set at the maximum brightness level, was usable in even in sunny conditions. DCR tests cameras for LCD screen quality, measuring contrast ratio and brightness. The best LCD monitors have a contrast ratio above 500:1 and brightness of at least 500 nits. Lab tests showed the ELPH 520 HS to have a contrast ratio 465:1, a peak brightness score of 256 nits and a black luminescence score of 0.55 nits. These are not great figures but, perhaps because of the LCD monitor’s high resolution, I felt it did a more than adequate job.

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