Canon PowerShot A720 IS Overview
by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 11/15/07
The Canon PowerShot A720 IS is based around the previous PowerShot A710 IS model, and a 6x optical zoom lens -- an equivalent of 35 to 210mm, making the A720 excellent for all-purpose photography. It also includes a high resolution eight-megapixel sensor, more than enough for tack-sharp 11 x 14-inch prints with some cropping. Although the resolution has been increased from the prior A710 model, the Canon A720 IS offers an ISO range that's been extended at the top end for an equivalent of ISO 80 to 1,600 -- plenty for indoor low-light shots.
The Canon A720 sports a large 2.5-inch rear-panel LCD in addition to its real-image optical viewfinder. In addition to fully automatic shooting the Canon A720 IS features aperture-priority and shutter-priority exposure modes, and even full manual shooting, welcome options for more sophisticated users. There's also a wide range of twelve scene modes, including an Underwater scene mode that adjusts color balance and exposure for use with an optional underwater housing. The Canon PowerShot A720 also offers a range of metering modes, including evaluative, center-weighted, spot, and face-detection-linked metering.
The Canon PowerShot A720 stores its images on SD/SDHC memory cards, with a not-so-generous 16MB included in the product bundle. A USB 2.0 Hi-Speed computer connection provides for speedy downloads, fast enough that most users will find no need for a separate card reader. There's also NTSC/PAL video connectivity. Power comes from two AA batteries, with disposable alkalines in the product bundle.
Shipping as of September 2007, the A720 IS has a suggested retail price of US$250.
Canon PowerShot A720 IS User Report
by Mike Pasini
Intro. The PowerShot A720 IS replaces the A710 IS in Canon's A-series, bumping up the sensor resolution from 7.1 to 8.0 megapixels, and raising the ISO to 1,600. But what's been retained is what makes the A-series so special: full manual control in a compact camera that runs on AA batteries. The price is hard to resist, too.
Full-manual control in the A-series doesn't mean just control of the aperture and shutter speed. It also means variable flash power, so you can shoot with fill flash and trigger an external slave flash. And unlike many compact digicams, the A-series can be expanded with a range of conversion lenses -- all of which enjoy the built-in image stabilization of the A720 IS.
I've always thought of the A-series as Canon's idea of the classic camera. It's a great learning tool for anyone who wants to explore their aptitude for photography. And it isn't a bad cheerleader either, with pleasing image quality and some excellent optics.
Look and Feel. The Canon A720 IS body style is designed to look like a classic rangefinder. Silver only, with an optical viewfinder and a big grip, you feel like you've seen it before. It's boxy rather than slim, but it's also more comfortable to hold and shoot with than typical credit-card-sized cameras.
Weighing just 8.57 ounces with two AA batteries and an SD card installed, it won't make your jacket hang unevenly, but it has enough heft that when you press the Shutter button that you won't shake the camera.
The grip is part of the reason, certainly. You can get your fingers comfortably around the battery compartment of the A720 IS for a stable shooting platform. Your index finger is free to toy with the Shutter button or Zoom Lever surrounding it. The A720's back panel has space just for your thumb to press against the Record/Playback switch.
The controls themselves will be familiar to Canon fans, with the same Menu and Function/Set dedicated button arrangement of other recent Canon digicams. But one thing I particularly appreciated was the ability to assign one of several custom functions to the Print/Share button that is otherwise unused in Record mode. You can assign ISO, White Balance, Custom White Balance, Teleconverter, Display Overlay, or Display Off to it.
The only oddity on the controls is the Record/Playback switch. That really could be incorporated on the busy Mode dial (just add Playback), saving a few more pennies on this bargain. I found myself wondering how to get into Playback mode on more than a few occasions, as I switched between the A720 and a couple of other Canons that do this a little more efficiently.
When it comes to composing your image, the Canon A720 IS stands out from the crowd with its optical viewfinder, an increasingly rare feature, especially as LCDs become larger and larger on smaller and smaller digicams.
The Canon A720 IS doesn't compromise here, although the viewfinder itself can't show off features like the 16:9 wide screen aspect ratio or the effect of image stabilization like the 2.5-inch LCD can. It can, however, be seen in sunlight, which is surprisingly difficult with most modern LCDs. And it won't reflect your bright Hawaiian shirt or pastel blouse like many of them do, too. I've often had an impossible time trying to use an LCD to frame my zoom range sample images from Twin Peaks with the sun on my right. An optical viewfinder is a welcome relief from that losing battle, even if it only shows about 80 percent of the captured scene.
The LCD itself does not have as high a resolution as many modern LCDs, but it's detailed enough to check your exposure and read the menus. The 115K pixels are one reason the price on this unit is so attractive, so you can't complain.
And what the LCD sees is what the optically stabilized zoom can see with its 6x optical range. Image stabilization is one of the wonders of modern photography. Your hand normally shakes enough to make a shutter speed like 1/30 chancy. But "chancy" drops to 1/4 second with image stabilization if you're trying really hard. No need for flash, no need for high ISO (and the noise that high ISO entails on a small digicam sensor). And, yes, a sharp, detailed shot. In fact, you'll get photos unlike any you've ever taken before without image stabilization.
Image stabilization has long been appreciated with long zooms where the 10x focal lengths are impossible to hand-hold, but I find myself relying on it even at shorter focal lengths, in light that does not invite photography. The only time I turn it off is when I use a tripod or sturdy support.
Canon believes image stabilization should happen in the lens, where an optical element can float to compensate for movement. That means more expense for Canon digital SLR fans, who will have to buy IS lenses instead of a body with the technology built in. But that approach is no issue for digicam buyers, where the design makes lens and body inseparable and the advantages of IS extend to the conversion lenses you attach in front of the main lens.
The aperture range at wide angle is from f/2.8 to f/8.0 and at telephoto from f/4.8 to f/8.0. While it isn't nearly as flexible as a lens on a dSLR, it does give you something to play with, particularly at wide angle where f/2.8 is pretty fast. It may seem a little confining to only be able to stop the lens down to f/8.0 but a small sensor permits no more. With small sensors, smaller apertures will only result in soft-looking photos.
Resolution is pretty good at around 1,500 to 1,600 lines with minimal softening in the corners and slightly more blur at telephoto focal lengths. Chromatic aberration is high at wide angle (not uncommon with zooms of this range) and moderate at telephoto. See our Optics test results page for the details.
Modes. Mode selection with the A720 IS is simple if you stick to Auto or the Creative Zone options of Programmed Auto, Aperture Priority (Av), Shutter Priority (Tv), or Manual. Adjustments in Manual mode are made with the Left and Right arrow keys. You switch from aperture to shutter speed by using the EV button. In other Creative Zone modes, you just use the Left and Right Arrows to affect the single option, with EV changing overall exposure. Very simple.
Then there are Canon's Scene modes. These include Portrait, Landscape, Night Snapshot, Kids & Pets, Indoor, Stitch Assist, Night Scene, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Aquarium, and Underwater.
The Canon A720 IS offers three focus modes plus manual focus. The familiar and very reliable 9-point AiAF system leads the list. Face Detect can identify up to nine faces (and very quickly). And FlexiZone lets you move a green focus target which you can resize to any spot on the LCD.
The Canon A720 IS lets you switch between them pretty easily, too. Press the EV button twice, then the Display button to change the size of the green target. Use the arrow keys to move the green target around to the spot you want the camera to focus on.
Manual focus is activated by pressing the Down arrow key. The center of the LCD shows a magnified view of the scene so you can use the outer dial to fine-tune your focus.
Storage and Battery. There's no built-in memory (which I find hard to think of as a disadvantage), so you'll want an SD or SDHC or MMC card with a capacity larger than the 16MB card included with the camera. That card holds about three large images or six seconds of highest-quality video (640x480 at 30 fps). A 512MB card will hold about 139 images and a little over four minutes of video.
According to Canon, alkaline batteries will deliver about 140 shots. But a set of rechargeable Ni-MH batteries will do much better, capturing about 400 shots. You can extend your recording time by turning off the LCD and using the optical viewfinder if your batteries are running low. Playback on alkalines is 540 minutes to the Ni-MH's 660.
Performance. I can't remember any digicam scoring so many Above Average marks on our performance categories before. It's an impressive achievement.
Startup and shutdown times, despite the A720 IS's protruding lens, both beat average times easily. Combined wide angle and telephoto autofocus lag did, too. And prefocus lag was nearly non-existent. Cycle time was however only average for a camera in this class.
USB speed was above average, too, as was LCD size and optical zoom. See the Performance tab for more details.
Only flash cycle time at almost 12 seconds and weight at 243 grams were below average, which you may interpret as an advantage. And both wide angle and telephoto optical distortion ranked average, not at all bad for a 6x zoom.
So regarding performance, the Canon A720 IS is no slouch.
Shooting. The A720 IS follows Canon's recent pattern of permitting 16:9 (wide screen) shooting for stills but not video. Certainly shooting HD video takes up a lot more space on your memory card but as more HDTVs are installed, it will be the one thing you wish you had in your camera. A few cameras already offer HDTV recording (notably from Kodak and even Canon's TX1).
Shooting 16:9 stills with the Canon A720 is a refreshing break from the 4:3 images that work so well as prints. In fact, at Grandview Park, we couldn't shoot anything but 16:9 images, the view was so broad and spectacular. You might think of it as a one-shot panorama mode, because at 1,254 x 1,832 they have a wide sweep perfectly adapted to display on an HDTV.
Macro shooting is another delight on the Canon A720 IS. The flash isn't really positioned well for macro shooting but with image stabilization and high ISO sensitivity, I didn't need it.
My shot of a miniature rose really surprised me, the Canon A720 IS capturing the red pretty well (an unusual achievement) and providing a nice blurring in the background as well.
Similarly the shot of corn hanging against a wall is sharp and detailed, although it too surprised me. It looks like it was taken in sunlight, but it's actually in the shade. Still, the wall is burned out, no doubt because the camera was exposing for the purple corn.
My favorite macro shot, however, has to be the Alfa stick shift. At ISO 800, we're near the limit of the A720 IS's low-noise performance. After that, we have to do some noise reduction (and it wouldn't kill the ISO 800 shots either). But the color holds up very well and there's still strong detail.
Among the happier surprises, however, were the beach shots. Exceptional color and very good detail (in YIMG_0223.JPG you can see surfers in the full resolution image). And I got the same thrill from the shots in the park only a few minutes later. I was surprised how well the Portals to the Past columns held detail in the highlights in YIMG_0227.JPG, actually.
Appraisal. The Canon A720 IS is a capable all-around camera with high-end features that are more useful than exotic. High ISO is usable and image stabilization so useful you almost always want it enabled. Digital zoom was a bit of a disappointment on this 8.0-megapixel camera, but otherwise the DIGIC III image processor provided above-average performance yielding some wonderfully natural shots in a variety of settings.
- 8.00 megapixel 1/2.5 inch CCD
- 6.00x zoom (35-210mm 35mm equivalent)
- Optical viewfinder
- 2.5 inch LCD with 115,000 pixels
- ISO sensitivity from 80 to 1,600
- Shutter speeds from 15 to 1/2,000 seconds
- EV compensation in 1/3 stop increments from -2.0 to +2.0
- Maximum aperture of f/2.8 at wide angle and f/4.8 at telephoto
- SDHC/SD/MMC/MMC Plus/HC MMC Plus memory card storage
- Two AA-size batteries
- 6x optical zoom
- Optically image-stabilized lens
- Full Manual mode with Programmed Auto, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority modes
- White Balance options include Auto, Preset (Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Underwater), and Custom
- Flash options include Auto, Auto with Red-eye Reduction, Flash On, Flash On with Red-eye Reduction, Flash Off; FE lock, Safety FE, Slow Synchro, and Second-curtain synchro
- Variable flash power
- Scene modes include Portrait, Landscape, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Night Scene, Aquarium, Underwater, Indoor, Kids & Pets, Night Snapshot, and Stitch Assist
- DIGIC III image processor
- Canon face detection technology for focus, exposure, and flash
- Extensive set of accessories including converter lenses
- Movie Print feature with select Canon printers
In the Box
The Canon PowerShot A720 IS ships with the following items in the box:
- PowerShot A720 IS Body
- Two AA-size Alkaline Batteries
- 16MB SD Memory Card SDC-16M
- Wrist Strap WS-200
- Digital Camera Solution CD-ROM
- USB Interface Cable IFC-400PCU
- AV Cable AVC-DC300
- Large capacity SD/SDHC memory card. These days, 1-2GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.
- Small camera case like the Deluxe Soft Case PSC-85 or PSC-60 for outdoor and in-bag protection
- Rechargeable NiMH batteries and charger
- High-Power Flash HF-DC1
- Conversion Lens Adapter LA-DC58G with Wide Converter WC-DC58N and Tele Converter TC-DC58N
- Waterproof Case WP-DC16
The Canon A720 IS stands out for its usable ISO as high as 1,600 (for small prints, or larger with noise reduction software) and excellent image stabilization so useful you'll always want it active. Considering you get that for under $250, it's a bargain, too. Digital zoom was a bit of a disappointment on the 8.0-megapixel Canon A720 IS, but otherwise the DIGIC III image processor provided above average performance yielding some wonderfully natural shots in a variety of settings. The Canon A720 IS's Movie mode can deliver broadcast quality video in a 4:3 aspect ratio while Still mode a offers 16:9 wide screen option I find a lot of fun. Operation is straightforward once you learn Canon's hierarchy of controls, but I was delighted to see a programmable Print/Share button on the Canon A720 IS.
From the optical viewfinder to the manual modes to the variable power flash, whenever I looked for a feature a photographer would appreciate, I found it on the Canon A720 IS. There isn't a gaudy LCD (with no room for a viewfinder) or extravagant zoom range (with big compromises in optical quality) or any of the frills (frames, in-camera presentations) of many less capable digicams. But if you want a mid-size digicam with a fairly long zoom that can take pictures like a real camera, this is it; and it's an easy Dave's Pick.