Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS Review
by Allison Johnson -  5/8/2011

The Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS wants to do it all. It wants to capture a style-conscious market with its smooth curves and 3.2-inch touchscreen. It wants to be brighter than the competition with a fast f/2 lens. It wants be a movie-maker with 1080p HD recording capability.

Canon PowerShot 500 HS

Part of Canon's newly-branded HS or High Sensitivity class, the 500 HS boasts improved low light performance with its 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor. It sits at the top of the PowerShot ELPH lineup price-wise and feature-wise. Its little brother, the 300 HS, offers many of the same things - same sensor, 1080p HD video and it even offers a longer 5x optical zoom to the 500's 4.4x lens.

That big touchscreen and the bright f/2 lens are what set the 500 HS apart. A shorter lens could be prone to less distortion, and the 500's lens is both wide and fast, providing lots of practical and creative uses. A wide angle of 24mm makes it possible to capture lots of landscape, and a little bit of zoom reach helps with creative composition. Take a look at the shots below taken at full wide and telephoto ends of the spectrum.

Canon 500 HS Sample Image
Wide Angle
Canon 500 HS Sample Image

Manufacturers are pushing the low light shooting capabilities of their top tier point-and-shoots. The Canon 500 HS is positioned as a real contender in this class. Did its performance in the field and in the lab let us down? Read on as we find out.

The Canon 500 HS is built around a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor with 12.1 megapixels. Moving some of the sensor's circuitry to the back of the sensor boosts its light-gathering potential, and Canon claims much improved low light capabilities over its non-HS system point-and-shoots.

Canon PowerShot 500 HS

The back panel is dominated by a 3.2-inch touchscreen, and the user is almost entirely dependant on the touchscreen for setting camera functions. The front of the camera is built with a slight outward curve, incorporating that 4.4x zoom lens, a built-in flash and an auto focus assist lamp. HDMI and A/V OUT ports are available under a latch on the camera's side, and a similar latch on the bottom covers the battery and memory card slot.

The PowerShot 500 has very little in the way of straight lines. There's a subtle two-tone color palette with the back and part of the top chassis a lighter color than the front. Our review model is pearly pink, and the 500 is offered in brown or silver.

Ergonomics and Controls
Controls on the top panel include a sliding shooting mode switch, an on/off button and a shutter release encircled by a zoom toggle. The back panel offers just an image review button. There's a ridge to the right of the LCD for a better grip in the right hand. The camera body appears to be a sturdy composite plastic.

Canon PowerShot 500 HS

The sliding latch on the bottom of the camera has a nice rubberized grip for easier operation. The latch itself is made of a thin plastic. A tripod mount is offset from the center.

I found the camera to be tricky to hold. The ridge on the back panel offers some help stabilizing the camera in the hand, but the curved lines make it pretty easy to drop. A wrist strap is included and can be looped through a small hook on the side of the camera; I recommend using this.

Canon PowerShot 500 HS

The touch interface is as intuitive as any I've used. Aside from the occasional hiccup in use - having to press an icon twice for the camera to register a selection - it was fairly responsive. Swiping the screen in a horizontal motion in image review will send images sliding across the display in an iPhone-like fashion. Icons in the scene selection menu are enlarged appropriately. The icon layout on either side of the display can be rearranged to the user's liking - a very handy feature.

There are some quirks, as there are with most any touch interface. The video record button is positioned where you'll naturally want to put your thumb, resulting in the occasional unwanted video clip. The quick function menu presents somewhat smaller icons, so it takes a little more finesse. And those with large fingers will likely be frustrated with the user experience.

Menus and Modes
Menu selections start with the switch on the top panel. Shooting mode options are Auto and Program Auto - the latter will give you more options in image exposure. A movie record button on the camera's shooting screen will start and stop video.

Canon PowerShot 500 HS

Icons on either side of the shooting screen provide access to camera settings like white balance, flash, self timer and exposure compensation. A Func. button pulls up a quick menu with more options like compression, image size and movie quality. With the function menu displayed, a "menu" icon will appear in the bottom right corner, providing access to a two-tabbed screen of camera settings. Here, you'll be able to change image stabilization options, AF frame mode, i-Contrast on/off, LCD brightness and volume control.

Canon PowerShot 500 HS

Auto mode will make your scene selection for you, but Program mode offers several other shooting modes when the "P" icon is pressed. Some of those modes are:

A couple of notes on Movie Digest mode - turn off your AF lamp before you start shooting or you'll have a funky orange glow in your video clips. Half-press the shutter and hold it for three seconds if possible so that the camera won't save the three seconds you spent getting the shot lined up. I liked this feature - a neat way to document an event without the need to switch into video mode. There are some considerations you'll have to make when using it, but overall it's a fun addition to the ELPH system.

More familiar scene modes are available including portrait, kids and pets, handheld nightscene and fireworks. Creative filter modes include fish eye, miniature, toy camera, creative light effect, super vivid and poster effect. Canon 500 HS users will not want for scene modes.

The menu should be intuitive to someone who has used a Canon point-and-shoot before, but it may take some getting used to for a beginner. I often needed to press twice on some of the icons for the touch screen to register my choice, but the more I used the camera the less this became a problem.

Even after I had become well acquainted with using the touch screen, it still provided the occasional stumbling block. I would aim for the white balance shortcut and instead trigger the touch-activated focus feature. Those who want to do little more than point and click may be fine; those who want to constantly adjust settings may find themselves frustrated on occasion.

That 3.2-inch display on the back panel has 461k-dots of resolution. I found it to be acceptably sharp and fluid. Bright sunlight makes it more difficult to use, but it was fairly usable in most outdoor conditions. Direct sunlight is a no go.

Our lab contrast test confirmed that the Canon 500 HS packs an above average LCD. We measured a peak brightness of 634 nits and a black level rating of 0.73 nits. That adds up to an overall contrast ratio of 868:1, a very good score and an indicator that the images you see on your screen will be true to what you have captured.

If you're one who will embrace a touchscreen, you'll find the PowerShot 500 HS fun to use. It responds (usually) quickly, offers a nice variety of user inputs including shutter and aperture priority modes and the f/2 lens comes in handy when you're looking for a little more shutter speed in dim conditions.

Shooting Performance
Auto focus is sufficiently fast in good lighting. Fast moving subjects will be harder to capture, but for most purposes the 500 HS's auto focus system is fast enough. In the darkest conditions it's slowed considerably, but the AF assist lamp helps keep it accurate. Continuous shooting is sustained for only 3 frames at a 3.8 fps rate, a somewhat disappointing figure as competing cameras from Sony and Nikon are pushing burst rates faster and faster.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 0.01
Nikon Coolpix S9100 0.01
Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS 0.02

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix S9100 0.18
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 0.18
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 0.25
Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS 0.36

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Nikon Coolpix S9100 5 15.0 fps
Sony Cyber-shot WX9 10 9.8 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 14 5.5 fps
Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS 3 3.8 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

The camera's built-in flash covers a range of 1.6 to 16 feet at wide angle and 1.6 to 6.6 feet at telephoto. I measured recycle times averaging around three seconds and up to six seconds after a full discharge.

The Canon 500 HS uses optical image stabilization and it appears to be doing its job. Images captured at shutter speeds as low as 1/15 are fairly sharp. It doesn't work miracles, though. Zooming in on a subject in poor lighting conditions will cause the aperture to narrow and force an even slower shutter speed that no optical image stabilization system could compensate for.

Battery performance is equally good. The included lithium-ion battery required a charge only a few times over the month I spent shooting on-and-off with the 500 HS. Canon claims a CIPA rating of 180 shots per charge, an accurate number in my experience with the camera.

Canon PowerShot 500 HS

Lens Performance
The ELPH 500 HS is built around a 24-105mm equivalent lens, providing a 4.4x optical zoom. It is plenty wide for landscape shots. That 4.4x magnification may seem comparatively low, especially considering that the 300 HS packs a 5x zoom, but this lens is not built for distance - it's built for speed.

At wide angle the aperture opens as wide as f/2; at telephoto f/5.8. It will focus as close as 1.2-inches in macro mode. As mentioned above, a shorter lens could work in the 500 HS's favor. In this case, it seems that this logic holds true.

The lens displays very nice edge-to-edge sharpness, with just a little softening at the corners of images. Chromatic aberration appears to be under control, with some fringing creeping in between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds when viewed at 100% magnification.

Canon 500 HS Sample Image

Video Quality
Most of today's premium compact point-and-shoots include 1080p HD video capture. The ELPH 500 HS keeps up with the competition offering 1080 at 24 fps, 720p at 30 fps, and 640 x 480 as well as 320 x 240 at 30 fps. The video clips I captured at Opening Day in Cincinnati were fluid and grain is minimal despite less-than-perfect lighting conditions.

Video recording is available in miniature mode with reduced framerates available to speed up the action, creating a tilt-shift effect. A tripod would come in handy if you plan to use this feature extensively, but even without the right equipment it's fun to mess around with.

Image Quality
I've come to expect very good, very reliable image quality from Canon's best PowerShots and the 500 HS didn't let me down. Exposure and processing are geared for the consumer class, so colors pop and contrast is somewhat strong. Colors are true to life with some expected saturation in reds, greens and blues. Like other cameras in its class, the 500 HS shows a tendency to overexpose. This is easy to compensate for, if you want to, by dialing in an exposure compensation.

As always, Canon offers some adjustment to saturation and tone through its "My Colors" processing modes, turned off by default, which offer the usual vivid, neutral and monochrome processing options. The 500 HS also has modes to optimize color for various skin tones and to emphasize blues, greens or reds.

The PowerShot 500 HS's auto white balance was used with most success outdoors. Mixed lighting conditions will challenge just about every camera system's auto white balance mode, and the little 500 HS struggled in scenes with an abundance of window lighting mixed with indoor lighting. As mentioned in our first look, the preset white balance options are reliable when auto isn't working.

Canon 500 HS Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Images at ISO 100 and 200 are very clean and hard to distinguish from one another. More noise appears in the ISO 400 image, but it's barely evident in reduced web-friendly sizes.

Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 100
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 200
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 3200
Canon 500 HS Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Fine details take a hit at ISO 800, noticeable in the numbers on the Auto Zone coin and the small print on the tin of mints. Colors are more flat - take a look at the blue felt bag. You won't want to print any ISO 800 images at large sizes, but the images are definitely acceptable for web use. At ISO 1600 colors have fizzled out and noise has increased. ISO 3200 should be used only as a last resort. Images have watery detail and flat color.

Additional Sample Images
Canon 500 HS Sample Image Canon 500 HS Sample Image
Canon 500 HS Sample Image Canon 500 HS Sample Image
Canon 500 HS Sample Image Canon 500 HS Sample Image

Manufacturers are scrambling to find a cure for a common point-and-shoot malady - noisy, blurred images in low light conditions. Does Canon manage to solve the low light problem with the 500 HS?

Not quite, but there's still a lot to say for this little point-and-shoot. That f/2 lens does come in handy when a little more shutter speed is needed. HD video is fluid, there are dozens of creative options available in-camera and images up to ISO 800 are easily usable for small prints and web work.

Though an f/2 lens is somewhat rare in a point-and-shoot, keep in mind that once you start zooming in on a subject, the aperture closes down quickly. And as with most compact cameras, there are some problems with overexposure and auto white balance reliability. The camera is somewhat heavier and bulkier than other currently available PowerShots.

Whether or not the 500 HS is for you depends on how you feel about touchscreens. This isn't the ultra-intuitive, super fluid screen on your iPhone. It's relatively easy to use, but it causes the occasional hiccup and misstep even after you've become well acquainted with how to use it. For those who would rather not finagle a touchscreen, head on over to our reviews of the 300 HS and the excellent PowerShot S95.

For everyone else, the PowerShot ELPH 500 HS is a good choice. Images are reliably good and details are sharp. A fast lens coupled with some flexible shooting modes will give a beginning user plenty of room to experiment, grow, and - most importantly - have a little fun.