If you're looking for a tiny snapshot camera that will fit in your pocket, the PowerShot SD300 Digital Elph might be a better choice. But should you be seeking a model that not only lets you switch to manual focus and exposure but also includes plenty of scene modes to fall back on, the PowerShot A520 will cost you $50 less. You can save another 50 bucks by opting for the PowerShot A510, which has the same features in a 3.2-megapixel package. After a run of testing digital ultracompacts that can get lost in a baggy pocket, the Canon PowerShot A520 felt a bit large in our hands, even though it weighs just 8 ounces and measures a compact 3.6 by 2.5 by 1.5 inches. Both figures are trimmer than those of its predecessor because the Canon A520 uses two batteries for power instead of four and SD memory cards rather than CompactFlash.
We liked the solid, businesslike feel of this compact, which has a curved grip that you won't find on tinier pocket cameras. Its controls are logically laid out and easy to access. On top there's a recessed power button, a speaker, and a large knurled dial for selecting shooting modes. On the back you'll find a slide switch to toggle between recording and viewing and a four-way rocking cursor pad with a central Set button. Canon assigns special functions to only two of the pad's keys: pressing up sets flash options, while pressing down selects normal, macro, or manual focus mode. There's a Display key for cycling through LCD status options and a Print/Share button to direct the current image to a linked PictBridge-compatible printer.
Other functions, including exposure compensation, are accessed with the traditional Menu button and a separate Function key. The menus include three tabbed listings for basic camera features such as adjusting sound volume; formatting the memory card; and turning digital zoom, red-eye reduction, or automatic review on and off. The Function key controls the shooting features, such as white balance, ISO, drive and exposure modes, self-timer, and image size and compression. Many other cameras don't send you to a menu to apply exposure compensation, activate the self-timer, or use a burst mode, but the PowerShot A520 remembers the last item accessed and pops it up the next time the Function key is pressed.
The other manual controls are pleasingly easy to use. For example, the left and right cursor keys are used to make shutter- and aperture-priority adjustments; in full manual mode, you press the Set button to toggle between shutter speed and f-stop control. If you elect to focus manually, the LCD shows a bar readout of the current distance as you focus. Canon has upped the zoom ante to 4X in this follow-up to the popular PowerShot A85, with a 35mm-to-140mm (35mm-camera equivalent) set of optics that gives you a fairly fast f/2.6 maximum aperture at the widest-angle setting, dropping to f/5.5 at the tele position. The Canon PowerShot A520's smallest f-stop is f/8 at both ends of the zoom scale. This camera maintains its predecessors' versatility by providing fully manual exposure control along with a broad range of automatic options. Manual shutter speeds range from 15 seconds to 1/2,000 second, and noise reduction kicks in automatically for any exposure longer than 1.3 seconds.
You can choose evaluative, center-weighted, or spot metering and programmed autoexposure, or switch to fully automatic exposure or one of the basic scene options that reside on the mode dial, including Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Fast Shutter (sports), Slow Shutter, and Stitch Assist (panorama). There are also six special scene modes clustered on a seventh dial position, including Foliage, Snow, Beach, Underwater, Indoor, Kids & Pets, and Night Snapshot. Macro focus brings you as close as 2 inches, and this Canon's selectable one-point-center or nine-point autofocus system is aided by a focus-assist lamp.
Unlike most cameras in this class, the PowerShot A520 is surprisingly expandable. You can press a button to remove a plastic collar around the lens and attach optional bayonet-mount 1.75X telephoto or 0.75X wide-angle lenses or a 52mm filter adapter. There's also an underwater housing available from Canon. There's no hotshoe on this camera, however. If you want to use a flash that's higher powered than the built-in light, you can attach a unit that fits on a bracket screwed into the tripod socket and syncs wirelessly with the camera. Both Canon and third-party vendors make them. The Canon PowerShot A520's burst mode and shutter-lag performance are its strengths. Shutter lag measures a quick 0.6 second under high-contrast lighting and a respectable 0.9 second under low-contrast lighting, while burst mode was able to snap off seven full-resolution frames in less than 4 seconds. You can shoot all day if you reduce resolution to 640x480 with maximum compression. We got 97 shots in 60 seconds during our test.
Unfortunately, the A520 was a little lethargic in single-frame mode when using flash. When powered off, it took 3.7 seconds to awaken before we could snap off our first picture, and it provided shot-to-shot times of 2.5 seconds without the speedlight. The average 7-second wait between flash exposures seemed much longer, however, and sometimes stretched to 10 seconds or more when we shot several consecutive flash shots.
Canon touts this camera's zoom-flash mode, which changes the flash angle to match the zoom setting. Even so, flash range is no more than 11 feet at the wide-angle setting and about 7 feet when using the telephoto (ISO unspecified)--about the same as other cameras in this class. Flash coverage was even, and exposures were good, however, and you can adjust the output from one-third to full power. The red-eye-prevention feature didn't do a lot to prevent red eyes, though.
The 1.8-inch LCD washes out under direct illumination and displays the usual ghosting during camera or subject movement. The optical viewfinder gives you a reasonably big, bright perspective. It represents an acceptable alternative for everyday viewing, except when you're shooting close-ups, as it suffers from parallax problems that make composition difficult. Photo quality from the Canon PowerShot A520 was very good for a 4-megapixel camera. The exposure system tended to favor shadow areas, which showed lots of detail, at the expense of highlight areas that were often washed out. Flesh tones were often a little ruddy, but other colors were fairly accurate, if muted. Flash exposures tended to be a little warm, and automatic white balance sometimes produced bluish casts under incandescent light indoors.
As you might hope, noise levels were low at the minimum ISO 50 sensitivity setting and rose dramatically at ISO 400, but the images were still quite acceptable at that rating. Some detail was masked by moderate JPEG artifacts, and chromatic aberrations, especially purple fringing, were evident around backlit subjects.