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Canon PowerShot ELPH 520 HS Review: Lots of Zoom, Little Camera
by Andy Stanton -  5/11/2012

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?



Overview

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:

Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Normal
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Fisheye
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Miniature
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Normal
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Soft Focus
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Super Vivid


Display/Viewfinder
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.



Performance

The performance of the ELPH 520 HS is very good in most respects. It starts up quickly, within a second or two. A movie begins recording as soon as you press the dedicated movie button. I did not notice any appreciable delay in activating the menu selections. Shot-to-shot time averaged about 2.5 seconds without the flash and about 4 seconds with the flash in operation, which is not particularly quick but adequate.

The ELPH 520 HS uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack, the NB-9, which is rated at approximately 190 shots. I managed to shoot about 160 photos and several videos before getting a low battery warning. Considering the camera’s relatively short battery life, you may want to purchase an extra battery.

Shooting Performance
The ELPH 520 HS rarely had problems focusing. In low light a focus assist beam helps illuminate the subject for more accurate focusing. 

The camera provides several auto focusing options. When Smart Auto is employed the camera will check to see whether there are any faces in the frame and, when the shutter is pressed halfway down, the LCD will show a white box around the face the camera considers to be the principal subject. Up to eight green boxes will appear around other faces in the frame. If no faces are present, the camera will put up to nine green boxes around what it determines to be the subject areas the user intends to be in focus. 

Tracking focus can also be enabled, which will put a blue box around a moving subject, which the camera will constantly keep in focus. In Program AE mode the user has the option of using one of three auto focus modes – face detection, tracking focus, and center of the frame.

Lab tests, set forth below, show excellent results for auto focus acquisition, commonly referred to as shutter lag, the time between pressing the shutter button and taking the picture.  The result, 0.21 second, is quicker than most point and shoot cameras. The ELPH 520 HS is not particularly quick in continuous shooting though, as it is able to record full resolution pictures at only 2.4 frames per second, which is slower than other cameras in its class.

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon PowerShot ELPH 520 HS 0.21
Panasonic Lumix FX90 0.24
Sony Cyber-shot TX100 0.32
Nikon Coolpix P300 0.43

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Cyber-shot TX100 10 11.4 fps
Nikon Coolpix P300 7 6.9 fps
Panasonic Lumix FX90 7 3.0 fps
Canon PowerShot ELPH 520 HS 2.4 fps

Lens Performance
The ELPH 520 HS has a versatile 12x zoom lens with a range of from 28 through 336mm (35mm film camera equivalent), and a maximum aperture of f/3.4 at wide angle and f/5.6 at telephoto. This enables it to take close ups of subjects that are quite far away.

Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Wide Angle
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Telephoto

The camera has a digital zoom mode that can extend the apparent focal length substantially, though excessive use of this function can result in severe deterioration of the image. The lens can focus as close as 1cm from the subject in macro mode. Images are generally sharp throughout the frame, with some softening around the edges. I noticed little difference in sharpness and color intensity between photos taken at wide angle and at maximum telephoto. Chromatic aberration (colored fringing) is well-controlled. I found minimal barrel distortion in photos taken at wide angle and no pin cushion distortion at extreme telephoto.

Video Quality
The ELPH 520 HS shoots nice looking movies in its highest resolution movie mode, 1920 x 1080 resolution at 24 frames per second, with good color and stereo sound. Optical zoom can be used, which will occasionally cause the camera to momentarily lose focus. 

There are also additional movie options including miniature effect, in which the subjects look like toys and move quickly around the frame, super slow motion, in which the camera shoots at 120 fps or 240 fps, and movie digest, which automatically records a short video clip every time you shoot a still image and the camera later combines the clips into one video.

Image Quality
The ELPH 520 HS is capable of producing sharp, high quality images with pleasing, realistic colors, though sometimes the colors seemed to lack punch. This may have been the result of overexposure, which can be a problem at times. Fortunately, the camera has settings for darkening the exposure as well as increasing the sharpness, contrast and saturation of the image.

I mostly used the camera’s auto white balance setting. White balance can be set to auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, two types of fluorescent and custom. The camera did an excellent job producing a white balance that matched the actual tone of the scene. The image below shows auto white balance under fluorescent lighting.

Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The camera’s flash can be set to one of two options in Smart Auto – auto and always off. In Program AE mode you have two additional options, always on and slow synchro, which uses a slow shutter speed to brighten the background.  Flash range is 1.6 - 8.2 ft. (50 cm - 2.5 m) at wide angle and 3.3 - 4.9 ft. (1.0 - 1.5 m) at telephoto.  The flash performs well, without providing too much illumination, as long as you keep in mind its limited range.

The ELPH 520 HS does a pretty good job in low light, considering the small size of its sensor.  The fact that Canon decided to limit the camera’s resolution to 10 megapixels is probably a major reason for such good results. Looking at the images below, all appear to be perfectly acceptable for small prints, even the image shot at 3200 ISO. All images have good color and show only a moderate increase in noise at the higher ISO levels.

Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 3200

The images set forth below, prepared by DCR’s labs, also confirm that the ELPH 520 HS is one of the better point and shoot cameras for shooting in low light.

Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 100
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 200
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 3200
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Additional Sample Images

Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Canon 520 HS Sample Image
Canon 520 HS Sample Image

Conclusion

The Canon PowerShot ELPH 520 HS is a fine camera. Its small size makes it very convenient to carry around and its powerful zoom provides the user with tremendous versatility. It’s a quick performer, for the most part, though its shot-to-shot speed could be faster, especially when the flash is utilized. It produces sharp, colorful, low distortion images throughout the frame at all focal lengths, including in low light. 


Overexposure can sometimes be an issue, which may cause colors to lose their punch, but the camera has settings to compensate for this. The camera takes good-looking movies, with only an occasional problem maintaining focus when the optical zoom is used. My major annoyances with the camera are its tiny buttons and its failure to include an auto-panorama mode. Hopefully future ELPH cameras will remedy these flaws.

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Cons: