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Canon Powershot A520 Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  4/27/2005

Evolutionary Convergence: Is the Canon Powershot A520 the first real entry level prosumer Digicam?

History often repeats itself and the past can be a good gauge of the future. Canon's "A" series digicams have been industry leaders since the introduction of the groundbreaking little A20. Last year's A75, A85, and A95 were huge sellers because Canon listened to what consumers wanted in entry-level digicams (excellent image quality, Point & Shoot simplicity, manual exposure capability, first rate optics, exceptional ergonomics, speedy operation, super power management, a boat load of advanced features, lots of accessories, and a relatively cheap price) and then built cameras to meet those expectations. Canon's design folks started with the proven "A" series platform and then crammed much of the cutting edge imaging technology developed for the company's "G", "S", and Digital Elph models into its new product line. The solid middle child of that exceptional imaging family was the 4 megapixel A85. Canon's new A520 replaces the A85. The Powershot A520 retains all of the best features of its predecessor and actually improves substantially on what was already a "best in class" digicam.

Entry-level digicams are generally fairly tame, but Canon's new Powershot A520 challenges that stereotype by re-defining the performance and usability parameters that have always typified entry-level Point & Shoot cameras. Even neophyte snap shooters will instantly master the A520's program and scene modes while more advanced photographers will love having the ability to choose greater control and more creative freedom with the A520's aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual modes.

Note about sample images: The "medium" images have been resized to 1024 pixels wide.  The full images are the original images from the camera and range from about 800KB to 2 MB, so be patient with load times. 

powershot a520 

What's New? How does the A520 differ from the A85?

First and foremost is the A520's newly designed 4X optical zoom (The A85 had a 3X zoom). In addition the A520 is slightly smaller, features a built-in zooming flash, dumps CF memory media in favor of smaller/faster SD/MMC cards, and improves power management.

NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

The A520's real image tunnel style zooming optical viewfinder (the same unit used in the A85) is bright and sharp, but it is a bit squinty and covers only about eighty per cent of the image frame. There is no diopter adjustment for eyeglasses wearers.

The A520 also recycles the A85's 1.8" LCD screen. Images are bright, sharp, and fluid and the full info data display provides detailed status/exposure information, but the LCD still doesn't automatically "gain up" in low light.

Zoom

The proven f2.8-4.8/35-105 (35mm equivalent) all glass 3X optical zoom used in the A20 through A85 models has been replaced by a newly designed f2.6-f5.5/35-140mm (35mm equivalent) all glass 4X optical zoom. When the A520 is powered up the lens extends automatically. When the camera is powered down the zoom is fully retracted into the camera and a built in lens cover closes to protect it. The A520's new lens is sharp, relatively fast, and fairly quiet. The A520 moves its 4X zoom from wide angle to telephoto in a bout 2 seconds.

There is moderate barrel distortion at the 35mm end of the zoom range (the A85's lens exhibited only minor barrel distortion) and slightly above average pincushion distortion at the telephoto end of the range. Corners are soft and there is visible vignetting (darkened corners) at maximum aperture at the wide-angle end of the zoom range. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is slightly above average, but overall the A520's new zoom is surprisingly good for an entry-level digicam (entry-level digicam zooms are notoriously poor, optically).

Auto Focus

The A520 utilizes the same TTL 9-point AiAF (Advanced intelligent Auto Focus) system as its predecessor. The AiAF system analyzes the scene in front of the camera and accurately calculates camera to subject distance to determine which AF point is closest to the primary subject and then automatically locks focus on that AF point. User's can turn off AiAF (via the menu) and default to the center focus point for portraits or traditional landscapes. In low light an AF assist beam illuminates the subject for more accurate focusing (The AF assist beam also acts as the red-eye reduction light). The A520's autofocus is fast and accurate, with slightly above average performance in good lighting.

Manual Focus

Entry-level digital cameras rarely provide a manual focus mode, but the A520 permits users to focus manually when precise focusing is critical. In MF mode a distance scale is provided (on the LCD screen) to indicate approximate distances and the center of the LCD is enlarged 2X to ensure accurate focusing (which is an improvement over the A85). The A520's manual focus system is somewhat cumbersome, but it does offer a bit more individual control than most comparably priced digicams.

Flash

The A520's new built-in multi mode flash provides users with Canon's first on-board zooming flash. When users zoom out (toward a remote subject) -- the flash head "zooms" too. What this means in practical terms is that the flash covers a broad area at the wide-angle end of the zoom range and a tighter area at the telephoto end of the range.

Flash options include: Auto (fires when needed), On (fill flash), Red-Eye Reduction, Slow-synch (in Night Scene Mode), and off. Canon claims the maximum flash range is 15-18 feet, which seems to be a fairly accurate assessment (based on my limited use). Unlike most entry-level digicams, the A520 provides (limited) flash compensation via the flash output setting (low, medium, or high). Overall, the A520's flash is noticeably better than average. The A520 is the only camera in its class that offers an optional External Slave Flash (the HF-DC1 High Power Flash), which I didn't get to try.

Memory Media

The A520 saves images to SD/MMC media, which is smaller and faster than the CF type I used by its predecessor. The A85 shipped with a 32 MB CF card, but its successor only provides a 16MB SD/MMC card.

Connectivity

USB 1.1, A/V out, and DC in (with the optional AC Adaptor). Why didn't Canon's product development folks include faster USB 2.0?

Power

The A85 had amazing power management (it used 4 AA batteries) and even universally available alkaline batteries were good for 150-200 (continuous LCD and occasional flash use) exposures. High capacity (2100-2300 mAh) NiMH re-chargeables kept the A85 up and running for 350-450 (continuous LCD and occasional flash use) exposures. Canon claims the A520 is good for 300 exposures with 2300mAh rechargeables.

My friend and I used the A520 through a weekend of heavy shooting (we didn't keep track of how many exposures we shot) with a pair of 2100 mAh AA batteries (continuous LCD use and occasional flash -- but very little review) and didn't run out of juice. Heavy LCD use, frequent review, and regular flash use will cause mileage to vary significantly. Overall, the A520's battery life is well above average (which is amazing considering the fifty per cent decrease in power depth).

powershot a520

EXPOSURE

Like its predecessor the A520 provides an amazing range of auto exposure options including; Auto (Point and Shoot mode), Program (Auto exposure with user input), Scene modes (Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Fast Shutter, Slow Shutter, Kids & Pets, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Underwater, and Indoor. Canon's exclusive iSAPS (Intelligent Scene Analysis based on Photographic Space) technology produces consistently exceptional exposures in all scene modes. The camera instantly matches the scene in front of the camera with an on board database of known scene types and then compares that information with the specific scene's subject distance, white balance, contrast range, lighting, and color (just before the image is recorded) to determine the correct exposure. The ISAPS system works hand in hand with Canon's DIGIC processor and AiAF auto focus system to quickly capture consistently exceptional images with accurate color, balanced contrast, and tack sharp focus. In addition the A520 provides a superb range of manual exposure options, including Aperture priority, Shutter-speed priority, and Manual mode (unlike most entry-level digital cameras, the A520 provides a full range of manual controls).

Movie Mode

Video capability is one area where the A520's competitors have the edge. Users can record video clips (with audio) for up to 30 seconds in duration at 640x480 @ 10 fps and up to 3 minute clips at 320x240 @ 15 fps. The A520 also provides a voice-notation option so users can add audio notes to still pictures. Users must set the zoom to the desired focal length before filming, but the Photo Effects mode can be used.

Metering

The A520's default evaluative metering system is consistently accurate in all but the most difficult lighting. More experienced photographers can opt for Spot metering in more demanding lighting, or center-weighted metering for a more traditional "look" in portraits and landscapes.

White Balance

The A520 provides experienced users with more white balance options than most currently available entry-level digicams. WB settings include TTL Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, and a custom (manual) mode that allows savvy shooters to use a white card (or white wall or ceiling) for accurate color. My friend and I both noticed that the A520's colors in auto mode have a very slight, but consistent orangish/warmish cast.

Sensitivity

TTL Auto & 50, 100, 200, or 400 ISO (35mm equivalent)

In-Camera Image Adjustment

The A520's Photo Effects mode allows users to quickly and easily adjust color saturation levels and image sharpening or select sepia tone or black & white.

CONTROLS, DESIGN, & ERGONOMICS

The A520 is an attractive compact and lightweight digicam that is slightly smaller than its predecessor. The camera is constructed of a durable combination of metal and polycarbonate. The controls are logically placed and easily accessed and the handgrip provides stability and balance. Experienced photographers will have no problem using the camera right out of the box and beginners should be able to shoot first-rate images after a short familiarization run through with the user's manual. Most of the A520's functions are available via traditional buttons, knobs, and switches -- but when users need to employ the menu system (which is identical to the A85) pressing the FUNC button provides an LCD overlay that affords direct access to the most commonly changed camera settings.

powershot a520

Technical Specifications

Resolution: 4 Megapixels (2,272 x 1,704)
Viewfinders: 1.8" TFT LCD screen and Real Image zooming optical viewfinder
Lens: f2.6-f5.5/35-140mm (35mm equivalent) all glass 4X optical zoom
Auto Focus: 9 AF point AiAF
Manual Focus: Yes
Exposure: Auto, Program, Scene Modes, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, full Manual mode, and Movie mode.
Metering: Evaluative, Spot, and Center-weighted
Exposure compensation: Yes /- 2 EV in 1/3 EV increments
White balance: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Flash, & Custom
Sensitivity: TTL Auto, 50, 100, 200, & 400 ISO (35mm equivalent)
In-Camera Image Adjustment: Yes
Noise Reduction: Yes-- automatic on exposures longer than 1 second
Flash: Auto, On (fill), red-eye reduction, and slow synch (in night scene mode only).
Image Storage Media: SD/MMC
Connectivity: USB 1.1, AV/out, DC/in
Power: 4 AA batteries

Street Price--$299.00

Included

16MB SD/MMC card, two AA Alkaline batteries, wrist strap, USB & AV cables, software CD's, user's and software manuals.

Optional

Lens Adapters (wide, macro, & Tele), (2) 4 NiMH batteries and charger kit, Waterproof case, HF-DC1 external flash unit, and soft camera case.

In the Field/Handling & Operation

I often get together with an old friend who shares my addiction for photographic toys. He works in the business (selling new and used photographic equipment) so we can almost always come up with something new to play with. Between us we have almost fifty years of hands on experience with hundreds of cameras (digital and film), scores of optics (zooms and primes), dozens of flash units, and a ton of filters, tripods, and assorted esoteric imaging accessories. Cameras today are more likely to record images digitally than on film and they offer features that veteran photographers (like me) only dreamed about, back in the day.

Canon's Powershot A85 was one of last year's most impressive entry-level digicams, an almost perfect choice first digital camera that offered consumers substantially more than the competition. When my friend snagged a Canon Powershot A520, we were both anxious to put it through its paces. Our first test was to shoot some color tests using a homemade product display stage and a selection of brightly colored (red, green, yellow, blue, orange, and purple) plastic children's beach toys arrayed in front of a white background. This test allows us to check color accuracy and White Balance (and compare results from camera to camera). The A520 did a superior job---all colors were bright and well saturated, but we both noticed a very slight orange/pink cast in the shots we made at the auto WB setting.

We've had a wet, cold, and dreary winter and everyone in town has been waiting impatiently for spring. After we finished our color tests, we headed out to look for signs of the season of renewal on the prettiest Saturday afternoon we've had in over a month. Temperatures were in the low sixties, blue skies with wispy white clouds, and lovely oblique early afternoon light. Our first destination was the scenic loop in Cherokee Park. We parked just down the hill from the statue of Daniel Boone (near the top of the scenic loop) and walked into the woods. We've had a long and very cold winter with lots of rain in the last few weeks so the ground was pretty squishy. We followed a small seasonal creek, but we didn't find much since it is still too early for spring wildflowers. We did shoot a couple of Eliot Porter style "intimate landscapes" of the small creek (with lots of moss-covered stones and a fallen tree limb that spanned the tiny creek like a miniature Chinese bridge. We also shot some outdoor "people" pictures along the twisting two-lane scenic loop road. The park was positively swarming with runners, skaters, bikers, and dog walkers out enjoying the gorgeous weather. We didn't see any signs of spring, so we spent about an hour shooting folks having fun in the sun before heading for Louisville's South end and Iroquois Park.

We took a break at the Twig And Leaf Restaurant on the way. When you step through the door of this old neighborhood diner it's like you've stepped into a time warp -- there's a counter lined with revolving stools, a menu heavy on comfort foods, and a nifty blue collar ambience. We grabbed a booth in back and ordered coffee. The Twig And Leaf is popular with Douglas Loop shoppers, local workmen, and young Goths and skateboarders. We sipped our coffee and took turns sneaking shots of our fellow diners by placing the camera at the edge of our table on a folded newspaper (after surreptitiously adjusting the zoom setting) and using the LCD screen to frame our shots.

Louisville has one of the best City park systems in the United States and Iroquois Park (like Cherokee Park) was designed (over a century ago) by America's most famous landscape architect, Frederic Law Olmsted. The heavily forested park covers a large hill that rises almost 1000 feet above Louisville's Southern suburbs. Once you are inside the park, it feels like you are "out in the country" rather than completely surrounded by subdivisions, Mom & Pop businesses, strip malls, and light industry. There is a patch of native mixed grass prairie with a small marshy area at its center near the top of the hill. This mini swamp was our shooting destination. Marshy areas are one of the first places where signs of spring appear. I have seen wild irises in bloom with their bases rimmed in ice. We weren't lucky enough to find any wild irises this trip but we did shoot some water's edge shots with the dark water back dropped by emerald green new growth and brownish yellow dead cattails against the robin's egg blue sky and cottony white clouds. After we finished up at Iroquois Park, we called it a day.

We got together on Sunday morning (which was even prettier than Saturday afternoon) and headed for Louisville's oldest cemetery (Cave Hill Cemetery was chartered in 1848). The old burying ground is filled with curving two lane roads, thousands of trees and bushes, and lots of 19th century grave markers. We shot an old weather-grayed and time-tilted native limestone grave markers surrounded by last Fall's dead brown leaves and photographed families out feeding the hundreds of tame ducks and geese who make their home around the old cemetery's small central lake before we headed downtown to shoot some action at Louisville's Extreme Park.

Local skateboarders, bikers and bladders congregate at the park to perfect their moves in the twenty-four foot full pipe, the eleven-foot bowl, and the six-foot quarter pipe. The bowls and pipes are perfectly placed for getting incredible action shots of young daredevils in gravity defying leaps. We had to move in fairly close because the A520's 4X zoom just didn't have enough reach to allow us to stand off at a reasonable distance. The kids at the Extreme Park make enthusiastic subjects, they love showing off for the camera. We spent about two hours shooting rapidly moving skateboarders traveling at truly dangerous speeds. Optimal framing/timing (centering the boarder in the frame AND stopping the action) is extremely difficult. The new A520 doesn't seem to be any faster than its predecessor (I wish Canon had built the A520 around the faster new DIGIC II processor) and that's not quite fast enough to capture high-speed action.

After we finished up at the Extreme Park we reviewed the images we'd shot over the course of our informal test. We put the A520 through its paces (from full Auto to full Manual) and it consistently delivered. We both felt the outdoor images were consistently well exposed, the color was great, and the overall image quality was as good as any four megapixel digicam we've used to date. We printed three 8X10's (a scenic shot from Cave Hill, one of our people shots from Cherokee Park, and an interior shot at the Twig & Leaf) with an Epson Stylus Photo 2200 (on Epson photo paper) and all three showed resolution that was sharp as a tack, vibrant color, great highlight and shadow detail, and a wide dynamic range -- however the ISO 400 shot inside the dimly lit restaurant had far too much noise.

Additional Shots 

Macro
powershot a520 samples
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[Medium Size] [Original Size]


[Medium Size] [Original Size]

PERFORMANCE

After reviewing the images we shot during a weekend of heavy use it's clear the A85's successor is a genuinely versatile digital camera that should appeal to everyone from casual shooters to more advanced shutterbugs. The A520 was up to, pretty much, whatever we threw at it, but it does its best outdoors in good light.

Image Quality

The A520's ISO 50 and 100 images were consistently superb, but ISO 200 images were a bit noisy and ISO 400 images were noticeably too noisy. Overall, the A520 produces well-exposed images with good color, balanced contrast, excellent shadow/highlight detail, and sharp resolution, but the new f2.6-f5.5/35-140mm (35mm equivalent) all glass 4X optical zoom isn't as sharp as the A85's 3X zoom. The A520's images are as good (or better) than any digital camera in its class. Reds are a bit warm and blues are a little bright, but most casual/amateur photographers probably wouldn't consider this a fault. We did notice some minor chromatic aberration (in high contrast color transition areas, especially at maximum aperture) in a couple of shots, but overall the A520's images are excellent.

Shutter Lag/Timing

The A520 (like its predecessor) is on the fast side of average. Start up time (power on and lens extended) is about two seconds. The 4X zoom travels from wide angle to telephoto in about two seconds. Shutter lag isn't really a problem (except in rapidly unfolding action situations), the shutter fires almost instantly once focus is achieved. The A520's AF speed is impressive, typically less than one second from scratch and almost real time with pre-focusing (press the shutter button halfway before snapping the shot). Low light focusing seemed (strangely) a bit slower than I remember it being with the A85. Shot-to-shot times are quicker (typically about two seconds) than the average for entry-level 4 megapixel digicams.

A Few Concerns

There is some visible chromatic aberration in high contrast color transition areas and noise levels at ISO 400 are too high. The A520's new 4X zoom isn't as sharp as the A85's 3X optic. Low light focusing seems to be slower with the A520 than it was with the A85. I would have liked to see Canon add TIFF/RAW format capability. My friend says industry buzz is that the A520 has worse red-eye problems the A85, but since we didn't shoot any informal portraits I can't address that criticism.

Conclusion

Canon's "A" series digital cameras have always provided consumers with impressive ease of use, exceptional performance, excellent image quality, and "best in class" bang for the buck, the A520 doesn't deviate from this family tradition. The A520 is a super choice for advanced amateur photographers just making the jump to digital, but it will also do a great job for casual shooters and as a primary family camera. The A520 is an excellent imaging option for travelers who want a digital camera that will allow them to record their adventures and student photographers who want a digital camera that they can "grow into" as their photographic capabilities evolve.

Pros
Compact, proven platform, 4X optical zoom, full manual controls, and very good battery life

Cons
Noisy ISO 200-400 images, LCD doesn't automatically "gain up" in low light

The Bottom Line
Canon's new Powershot A520 is a worthy successor to the superb Powershot A85, an upgrade that offers genuine improvement and enhanced usability