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Quick Review

Canon PowerShot A520 Digital Camera

Camera QuickLook
Review Date
User Level
Novice to Experienced
Product Uses
Family / Travel / Special Events
digital camera Design
Point-and-Shoot or Manual control
Picture Quality
Good, 4.0-megapixel CCD
Print Sizes
11x14s or 8x10s with some cropping
February, 2005 
Suggested Retail Price
(At introduction)


: The 4-megapixel Canon PowerShot A520's features and functions are nearly identical to those of the 3-megapixel PowerShot A510, which we reviewed at about the same time. The majority of this review is therefore almost identical to our Canon PowerShot A510 review. If you've already read the A510 review, you can save yourself some time by skipping down to the Test Results section here. - The two cameras are quite similar, but there are a few subtle differences in image quality, mainly slightly higher resolution and slightly better skin tones on the part of the A520, and somewhat better image noise on the part of the A510. Read the Test Results for the fine details.



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The Canon PowerShot A520 is the latest in a long line of well-built digital cameras from Canon. Canon U.S.A. has long been a strong contender in the film and digital camera markets, well-known for its high-quality optics, technical innovations, and aggressive product development. The 4.0-megapixel Canon A520 updates this extensive line with a longer-ratio zoom lens, more compact form factor, and a few other unique features, increasing the camera's already great flexibility.

Last year, Canon's PowerShot A80 found itself in the Dave's Pick category, offering excellent usability and great picture quality at a low price. This year, the Canon PowerShot A520 continues the series, adding a 4x zoom lens (vs the A80's 3x design), but in most other respects simply carrying forward the features of the previous A80 model. The camera accommodates a wide range of users with its variable level of exposure control. Experienced shooters will appreciate the Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority modes, while novices will find the Auto, Program AE, and Scene modes useful. Keep reading to find out more!


Camera Overview

Hitting the digital camera scene with a familiar PowerShot A-series design, the Canon PowerShot A520 is indeed very similar to the preceding A80 model and features many of the same exposure options and features. The most obvious improvement relative to the A80 is the A520's 4x zoom lens, boosted from the 3x lens used in the A80. Another new feature on the A520 is the adjustable Timer mode, which lets you set the shutter delay anywhere from one to 10 seconds, and program anywhere from 1 to 10 shots to be taken once that time has elapsed. The A520 features a 4.0-megapixel CCD, which results in image resolutions as high as 2,272 x 1,704 pixels, and printing to 11x14 inches with great detail. (Prints at 13x19 from the Canon i9900 high-end inkjet printer in our studio looked pretty good at normal viewing distances, but a little soft when viewed up close. Lower resolutions are also available, including an email-friendly size.) Other key features include full and partial manual exposure control, a nine-point AiAF system, and SD/MMC memory storage. The A520's all-plastic, two-toned silver body is lightweight and compact, although just a little too large for the average shirt pocket. Still, the A520 should easily fit into larger coat pockets and purses, and comes with a wrist strap for more security while shooting. Like many Canon digital cameras, the A520 features a shutter-like lens cover and a retracting lens that keeps the camera front fairly smooth when the camera is powered off. Without a lens cap to keep track of, the A520 is quick on the draw (you just have to wait a couple of seconds for the lens to extend forward before you can shoot).

Equipped with a 5.8-23.2mm lens, the Canon A520 offers a 4x optical zoom range equivalent to a 35-140mm lens on a 35mm camera. (A moderate wide angle to a pretty good telephoto.) Aperture ranges from f/2.6 to f/8.0 depending on the zoom setting, and can be manually or automatically adjusted. The A520 uses Canon's AiAF (Artificial Intelligence Auto Focus) system, which judges focus based on a nine-point area in the center of the frame. Whatever portion of the subject is closest to one of the AF points is what determines the overall focus. You can alternately choose to base focus on the center of the frame only. The A520 also offers a manual focus mode, displaying a numeric distance scale on the LCD display, and an optional magnified portion in the center of the frame. (Unlike those of some cameras I've tested, the A520's magnified display is actually fairly usable for determining focus.) A bright orange AF Assist Beam on the front panel helps the camera focus in dark shooting conditions, and can be deactivated if necessary. In addition to the optical zoom, the A520 also offers as much as 3.6x digital zoom. However, I always remind readers that digital zoom invariably decreases the overall image quality because it simply enlarges the center pixels of the CCD image. The Canon A520 has both a real-image optical viewfinder and 1.8-inch LCD monitor for composing images. As is often the case, the optical viewfinder is rather "tight," showing only about 80% of the final image area, but the LCD is very accurate. The LCD monitor's information display includes detailed exposure information, including shutter speed and aperture settings in the manual shooting modes.

The Canon PowerShot A520 provides a full range of exposure control, from Manual to Auto exposure modes, and a handful of preset scene modes as well. All exposure modes are accessed by turning the Mode dial on top of the camera. Canon divided the dial into three exposure types: Auto, Creative Zone, and Image Zone. Shooting in Auto mode puts the camera in charge of everything except the Flash and Macro modes. Exposure modes in the Creative Zone include Program AE (P), Shutter Speed-Priority AE (Tv), Aperture-Priority AE (Av), and Manual Exposure (M). Program AE lets the camera choose the aperture and shutter speed settings, but gives you control over all other exposure options. Aperture and Shutter Speed Priority modes allow you to set one exposure variable (aperture or shutter speed) while the camera chooses the best corresponding variable. Manual mode gives you full control over all exposure options.

Exposure modes in the Image Zone include Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Fast Shutter, Slow Shutter, Scene, Stitch Assist, and Movie. Portrait, Night Scene, and Landscape all make automatic camera adjustments to optimize settings for specific shooting conditions. The Portrait mode uses a large aperture setting to focus on the subject, while maintaining an out-of-focus background. Landscape mode slows the shutter speed and maximizes depth of field with a small aperture setting. Night Scene mode illuminates your subject with flash and uses a slow shutter speed to evenly expose the background. Fast Shutter mode uses a fast shutter speed to freeze action, while Slow Shutter mode uses a slower shutter speed to blur moving objects (such as waterfalls or fountains). The Scene setting accesses several more specialized preset shooting modes, which include Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Underwater, Indoor, Kids & Pets, and Night Snapshot, all of which set up the camera for very specific conditions. The Stitch-Assist mode is Canon's answer to panorama shooting, in which multiple, overlapping images can be captured horizontally or vertically. They are then "stitched" together on a computer using Canon's bundled software package or other image editing software. Movie mode allows you to capture up to three minutes of moving images and sound at approximately 15 frames per second in 320 x 240 or 160 x 120 mode. A 640 x 480 mode is also available, but is limited to 10 frames per second and a maximum recording time of 30 seconds. As with most digital cameras that record sound with their movies, the Canon A520 doesn't let you zoom the lens while movie recording is underway.

The White Balance setting adjusts color balance, with settings for Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, and Fluorescent H (for daylight fluorescent lighting). There's also a Custom setting to manually set color balance based on a white or gray card. Exposure Compensation increases or decreases the overall exposure, from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. An ISO adjustment offers 50, 100, 200, and 400 ISO equivalents, as well as an Auto setting. By default, the A520 uses an Evaluative metering mode, which links the metering area to the focus area (when AiAF is activated). Also available is a Spot Metering option, which bases the exposure on the center of the subject, and Center-Weighted, for a larger area in the center of the frame. The A520's flash operates in either Auto, Forced, Suppressed, or Slow Synchro (in Night Portrait mode only) modes, with an available Red-Eye Reduction setting through the Record menu.

A creative and fun Effects menu lets you play around with image color, offering Vivid and Neutral color settings, as well as Sepia and Black and White options. A Low Sharpening option softens the image. Continuous Shooting mode works like a motor drive on a 35mm camera, capturing a rapid burst of images for as long as the Shutter button is held down (or until the memory card runs out of space). Actual frame rates will vary depending on the image size and quality selected. The A520 also features a self-timer, which delays the shutter for anywhere from one to 10 seconds after the Shutter button is pressed, letting you run around and jump into the shot. You can manually set the delay interval, or select two- or 10-second modes. As mentioned earlier, the Canon PowerShot A520 sports a new "Timer" mode, which lets you set a delay ranging from 1 to 10 seconds, after which the camera will capture anywhere from 1 to 10 shots. (Great for group pictures, making sure you get one with nobody blinking.) The A520 also features the My Camera menu, which lets you customize camera settings to your own preferences. For example, you can set the image that appears at startup, or assign a fun sound at startup or to button functions.

The PowerShot A520 stores images on SD/MMC memory cards, and comes with a 16MB starter card. (This is another change from last year's A85 model, which used CF cards. The A520's use of SD cards is a large part of how Canon packed the same rich feature set into a smaller body.) I highly recommend purchasing a larger-capacity card right away, given the A520's maximum 2,272 x 1,704-pixel resolution. The camera uses two AA-sized batteries for power, either alkaline or NiMH type. Two alkaline batteries come with the camera, but I strongly advise picking up a couple of sets of rechargeable batteries and a charger, and keeping a spare set freshly charged at all times. Click here to read my "battery shootout" page to see which batteries currently on the market are best, or here for my review of the Maha C-204W charger, my current favorite. The optional AC adapter might be useful for preserving battery power when reviewing and downloading images, and plugs straight into a DC In jack on the side of the camera, but good-quality rechargeable batteries really eliminate the need for it. The Canon A520 features a USB jack for quickly downloading images to a computer, and comes with a software CD loaded with Canon Digital Camera Solution Disk (compatible with Macintosh and Windows systems). Additionally, an AV Out jack and the included video cable lets you connect the camera to a television set. The A520 is DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) compatible, with a range of print settings available through the Playback menu. The camera can also print directly to several of Canon's accessory photo printers or other PictBridge printers.

Basic Features

  • 4.0-megapixel CCD delivering image resolutions as large as 2,272 x 1,704 pixels.
  • 1.8-inch color LCD monitor.
  • Real-image optical viewfinder.
  • Glass, 4x 5.8-23.2mm lens (equivalent to 35-140mm zoom on a 35mm camera).
  • 3.6x digital zoom.
  • AiAF autofocus and a manual focus mode.
  • AF Assist light for low-light focusing.
  • Full Automatic, Program AE, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual exposure modes, as well as 13 preset exposure modes.
  • Manually adjustable aperture setting ranging from f/2.6 to f/8.0, depending on lens zoom position and shutter speed.
  • Shutter speed range from 1/2,000 to 15 seconds, depending on aperture.
  • Built-in flash with five operating modes.
  • SD/MMC memory storage.
  • Power supplied by two AA batteries or optional AC adapter.

Special Features

  • Movie mode (with sound).
  • Sound caption recording.
  • Stitch-Assist mode for panoramic shots.
  • Continuous Shooting and a variable delay Self-Timer mode.
  • Creative Effects menu.
  • White balance (color) adjustment with seven modes.
  • ISO adjustment with four ISO equivalents and an Auto setting.
  • Low Sharpness setting.
  • Evaluative, Center-Weighted, and Spot metering options.
  • DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) compatibility.
  • USB cable for connection to a computer (driver software included).


Offering a complete range of auto and manual exposure controls, the Canon PowerShot A520 makes a good choice for novice users and experienced amateurs alike. Its fully automatic mode keeps things simple for novices, while the camera's more manual modes offer the opportunity to gradually step up to more control. Plus, the range of preset exposure modes ensures that less-experienced photographers will get good pictures in difficult shooting situations. The 4.0-megapixel CCD captures high quality images, quite suitable for printing as large as 11x14 inches, or 8x10 inches with some cropping, while maintaining very good detail. The compact design should fit well into a larger coat pocket or purse, and the lens design protects it when closed, while keeping the camera body smooth and low-profile. In addition to the range of exposure controls, a menu of creative effects makes the Canon A520 fun too. Like the A85 before it, the A520 is marketed and priced as an "entry level" camera, but its features and capabilities extend far beyond that category. If you're looking for an inexpensive camera that you can grow with (and that shoots excellent photos as well), the Canon A520 deserves serious consideration.



The Canon PowerShot A520's compact body has a solid feel, thanks to a combination of a rugged plastic body and metal decorative panels, plus a healthy heft. Measuring 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.5 inches (91 x 64 x 38 millimeters), the A520 probably won't fit into your shirt pocket. It will, however, find its way into larger coat pockets, purses, and hip packs, good for travel. The A520 has good heft, with its 8.4-ounce (238-gram) weight, with batteries and memory card, but isn't at all uncomfortable to carry. The two-toned silver body is sleek and understated, yet sophisticated enough for any age group.

The A520's front panel features the telescoping 4x zoom lens, which extends an additional 3/4 to 1 inch when fully extended. Also on the front panel are the optical viewfinder window, small microphone, flash, and a light emitter that serves multiple purposes, including autofocus assist, red-eye reduction, and the self-timer countdown. On the lower right side of the lens (as viewed from the rear) is a small button that releases the ring around the lens barrel. Removing the ring allows you to attach a lens adapter for extended telephoto, wide angle, or macro capabilities. There's also a good-sized hand grip on the front panel, created by the battery compartment.

On the right side of the camera (as viewed from the rear) is only the eyelet for attaching the wrist strap.

On the opposite side of the camera is the connector compartment, covered by a flexible, rubbery plastic flap that snaps in and out of place. When opened, the flap remains connected to the camera body, and folds out of the way to accommodate cables. Inside the compartment are the DC In, Digital (USB), and A/V Out jacks. Directly below the DC In jack is the removable compartment for a tiny CR1220 battery that maintains the camera's clock settings when the main batteries run out.

The A520's top panel features a Mode dial with 13 shooting positions divided into three basic categories: Auto Exposure, Image Zone, and Creative Zone. The Shutter button is located diagonally in front of the Mode dial, with a Zoom lever surrounding it. Behind the Shutter button and Zoom lever is the camera's speaker. A Power button is on the other side of the Mode dial.

The rest of the exposure controls are located on the camera's rear panel, along with the optical viewfinder and 1.8-inch LCD monitor. The eye-level optical viewfinder features two LED lamps that report camera status. A Mode switch puts the camera into Playback or Record modes, and is adjacent to the top right corner of the LCD monitor. Below the Mode switch is a four-way multi-controller that navigates settings menus, pressing up, down, left, and right. The top edge also controls flash mode, while the bottom edge accesses Macro and Manual Focus modes. A Set button at the center of the multi-controller confirms menu changes. Below the LCD monitor are the Print/Share, Menu, and Function/Erase buttons, with the Display button adjacent to the lower right corner. In the lower right corner of the rear panel is the SD/MMC memory card compartment, protected by a plastic door that slides down before opening. The card is then accessed from beneath the camera.

The A520's bottom panel is reasonably flat, with a sliding door to access the battery compartment and a threaded plastic tripod mount at about center. The battery door and tripod mount are far enough away from each other to make quick battery changes while working with a tripod, though the SD/MMC compartment would be blocked. (This is something I always pay attention to, given the amount of studio shooting I do, though the A520's users will likely be out in the field rather than in a studio.)


Camera Operation

While the A520's user interface may seem slightly cryptic at first approach, it's actually quite efficient. Most camera functions are controlled externally, and a few of the external control buttons serve multiple functions. When you do need to enter the LCD menu system, navigation is straightforward with only two main pages of options. That said, the majority of external controls do require the LCD display to be active. Regardless, the A520's external controls cut down on the amount of time spent searching menu screens, and I particularly like the "Function" menu which became standard on Canon digital camera models in the 2003 model year. Combined with the instruction manual, the A520's user interface shouldn't take more than an hour to get comfortable with.

Record Mode LCD Display: In Record mode, the A520's LCD reports various exposure settings, including camera modes, the resolution and quality settings, number of available images, etc. Half-pressing the Shutter button reports the aperture and shutter speed settings, in all modes except Manual. (Aperture and shutter speed are displayed continuously in Manual mode, whether the Shutter button is pressed or not.) Pressing the Display button cycles through the available display modes, including the image with information, no display at all, and the image only.

Playback Mode LCD Display: In Playback mode, the LCD reports the image series number, resolution and quality setting, file name, and the date and time of image capture. Pressing the Display button once pulls up an enhanced information display, with a histogram for checking the exposure. A third press cancels the information overlay entirely. The telephoto side of the zoom toggle lets you zoom in on a portion of the image, while the wide-angle side backs you out again, and lets you step out to an "index" view of captured images, displayed as nine thumbnails at a time. Zooming out one step past the point at which the index display appears adds a "jump" bar to the bottom of the screen, letting you jump forward or back nine images at a time, rather than scrolling from each image to the next individually.


External Controls

Shutter Button
: Resting in the center of the Zoom lever, this button sets focus and exposure when halfway pressed, and fires the shutter when fully pressed.

Zoom Lever (see image above): Surrounding the Shutter button on the top panel, this lever controls the optical and digital zoom while in Record mode. In Playback mode (when not using the playback zoom), the wide setting displays a nine-image index display of all images on the memory card, and accesses a "Jump" function that lets you scroll through index display screens quickly. Alternatively, the telephoto position enlarges the currently displayed image as much as 10x, so that you can check on fine details.

Mode Dial
: Also on the camera's top panel, this large, notched dial is used to select the camera's shooting modes. Canon divides these functions into three categories: Auto, Image Zone, and Creative Zone. The options are as follows:

  • Auto
    : The camera controls everything about the exposure, except for Flash and Macro modes, image size and quality settings.
  • Creative Zone

    • Program AE (P)
      : Places the camera in control of shutter speed and lens aperture, while you maintain control over everything else (i.e., white balance, ISO, metering, exposure compensation, flash, etc.).

    • Shutter-Speed Priority AE (Tv)
      : Allows you to control the shutter speed settings from 1/2,000 to 15 seconds, while the camera controls the aperture. All other exposure settings are available.

    • Aperture Priority AE (Av)
      : Allows you to set the lens aperture from f/2.6 to f/8.0, while the camera controls the shutter speed. The maximum aperture depends on the zoom setting, ranging from f/2.6 at the wide angle end to f/5.5 at the telephoto position. In this mode, you maintain control over all other exposure variables.

    • Manual (M)
      : Provides complete control over all exposure settings, including shutter speed and lens aperture. As with aperture-priority mode, the maximum aperture varies with the zoom setting from f/2.6 at wide angle to f/5.5 at telephoto. The fastest shutter speed varies with the aperture and zoom setting:
      • 1/1,250 at f/2.6-3.5 (wide) or f/5.5-7.1 (tele)
      • 1/2,000 at f/4.0-8.0 (wide) or f/8.0 (tele)

  • Image Zone

    • Portrait
      : Uses a large aperture setting to blur the background while keeping the primary subject in sharp focus.

    • Landscape
      : Employs a small aperture setting to keep both the background and foreground in focus. (May use a slower shutter speed, so a tripod is recommended.)

    • Night Scene
      : Uses slower shutter speeds and flash to even out nighttime exposures. The slow shutter speed allows more ambient light to be recorded in the low-light areas, while the flash freezes the subject. The Red-Eye Reduction mode can be used with this exposure mode to eliminate Red-Eye in night portraits.

    • Fast Shutter
      : Uses fast shutter speeds to stop action and maintain sharp focus on moving subjects.

    • Slow Shutter
      : Uses slow shutter speeds to blur fast-moving subjects.

    • Scene
      : Accesses more specific preset shooting modes, including Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Underwater, Indoor, Kids & Pets, and Night Snapshot.

    • Stitch-Assist
      : Allows you to record a series of images, either horizontally, vertically, to be "stitched" together into one large image or panorama on a computer.

    • Movie
      : Records as long as three minutes of moving images with sound, at approximately 15 frames per second.

Power Button
: To the left of the Mode dial, this button turns the camera on or off.

Mode Switch
: Adjacent to the top right corner of the LCD monitor on the rear panel, this switch selects between Record and Playback modes.

Multi-Controller Rocker Button
: This four-way rocker button isn't marked with arrows, but actuates left, right, up, and down, simulating arrow keys to navigate through settings menus. In Record mode, the left and right buttons adjust available exposure settings, as well as manual focus, when enabled. The top button controls flash mode, while the bottom button accesses Macro and Manual Focus modes.

In Playback mode, the left and right buttons scroll through captured images. When an image has been enlarged, all four arrows pan within the view.

Set Button (see image above): In the center of the multi-controller, this button confirms menu selections. It also switches between available exposure adjustments in Manual mode.

Display Button
: Below the multi-controller and adjacent to the lower right corner of the LCD monitor, this button controls the information and image display modes in Record and Playback modes.

Function / Erase Button
: Directly below the lower right corner of the LCD monitor, this button displays the following Function menu while in Record mode:

  • Exposure Compensation: Increases or decreases the exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. Not available in Manual mode, since the user controls the exposure variables directly there.
  • Flash Output: (Manual mode only, takes the place of the Exposure Compensation option): Adjusts the overall flash intensity in three steps from Low to Full. In Manual mode, the flash fires only a single pulse, handy when you want to use the A520 with conventional "slave" triggers for external flash units.
  • White Balance: Controls the color balance of images. Options are Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, and Custom (manual setting).
  • Drive Mode: Accesses Continuous Shooting and High Speed Continuous Shooting modes, and the three Self-Timer modes (a two- or 10-second delay, or the adjustable timer).
  • ISO Speed: Sets the camera's sensitivity to Auto (except in Manual), or to 50, 100, 200, or 400 ISO equivalents.
  • Photo Effect: Enables Vivid Color, Neutral Color, Low Sharpening, Sepia, or Black-and-White picture effects.
  • Light Metering System: Sets the metering mode to Evaluative, Center-Weighted, or Spot.
  • Resolution: Specifies the image resolution and quality settings. Still image resolutions are 2,272 x 1,704; 1,600 x 1,200; 1,024 x 768; and 640 x 480 pixels. Postcard mode also offers 1,600 x 1,200 pixel resolution but greys out a portion of the screen top and bottom, showing the part of the image that won't fit on a standard 4x6 print. Quality options (activated by pressing the Set button) are Superfine, Fine, and Normal. Movie resolutions are 640x 480, 320 x 240, and 160 x 120 pixels.

In Playback mode, this button displays the single-image erase menu.

Menu Button
: Left of the Function / Erase button, this button calls up the settings menu in Record and Playback modes. It also dismisses the menu screen and backs out of menu selections.

Print/Share Button
: Directly left of the Menu button, is the Print/Share button. When connected to a printer or Windows computer, this button lights up, indicating that sync or printing is one button away.

Battery Compartment Latch
: Nestled in the center of the battery compartment door on the bottom of the camera, this sliding switch unlocks the door, so that it can slide forward and open.

Lens Ring Release Button
: Tucked under the lens on the camera's front panel, this button releases the lens ring. Once unlocked, the lens ring can then be turned and removed to accommodate accessory lens kits.


Camera Modes and Menus

Record Mode: Marked on the Mode switch with the red camera icon, this mode sets up the camera for capturing still and moving images. The following exposure modes are available:

  • Manual (M): Provides complete control over all exposure settings, including shutter speed and lens aperture (available shutter speeds depend on the aperture and lens zoom settings).
  • Shutter-Speed Priority AE (Tv): Allows you to control the shutter speed settings from 1/2,000 to 15 seconds, while the camera controls the aperture. All other exposure settings are available.
  • Aperture Priority AE (Av): Allows you to set the lens aperture from f/2.8 to f/8.0 (depending on the zoom setting), while the camera controls the shutter speed. In this mode, you maintain control over all other exposure variables.
  • Program AE (P): Places the camera in control of shutter speed and lens aperture, while you maintain control over everything else (i.e., white balance, ISO, metering, exposure compensation, flash, etc.).
  • Auto: The camera controls everything about the exposure, except for Flash and Macro modes, and image size and quality settings.
  • Portrait: Uses a large aperture setting to blur the background and keep the primary subject in sharp focus.
  • Landscape: Employs a small aperture setting to keep both the background and foreground in focus.
  • Night Scene: Uses slower shutter speeds and flash to even out nighttime exposures. The slow shutter speed allows more ambient light to be recorded in the low-light areas, while the flash fully exposes the subject.
  • Fast Shutter: Uses fast shutter speeds to stop action and maintain sharp focus on moving subjects.
  • Slow Shutter: Uses slow shutter speeds to blur fast-moving subjects.
  • Scene: Accesses the remaining preset scene modes, including Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Underwater, Indoor, Kids & Pets, and Night Snapshot.
  • Stitch-Assist: Allows you to record a series of images, either horizontally or vertically, to be "stitched" together into one large image or panorama on a computer.
  • Movie: Records as long as three minutes of moving images with sound, at approximately 15 frames per second (depending on the resolution setting).

Record Menu: Pressing the Menu button in Record mode pulls up the following options (not all options are available in all modes):

  • AiAF: Turns the AiAF system on or off. If on, the camera judges focus based on the subject's proximity to nine focus areas arrayed in the center of the image. If off, the camera bases focus on the very center of the frame.
  • Red-Eye Reduction: Turns the Red-Eye Reduction pre-flash on or off, which works with all flash modes.
  • MF-Point Zoom: Turns the MF Point zoom option on or off. If on, the center of the frame is enlarged on the LCD display for better viewing while adjusting the manual focus.
  • AF Assist Beam: Turns the AF Assist light on or off. If on, the light automatically illuminates in dark shooting conditions.
  • Digital Zoom: Turns the 3.6x variable digital zoom on or off.
  • Review: Turns the instant image review function on or off, with available image display times from three to 10 seconds in one second steps.
  • Date Stamp: Specifies whether the date and time are overlaid on the image. (Only available in Postcard mode.)

Playback Mode: This mode lets you review captured images and movies on the memory card, as well as erase them, protect them, or tag them for printing and transfer. The traditional green Playback symbol denotes this mode on the Mode switch. Pressing the Menu button displays the following options:

  • Protect: Marks the current image for write-protection, or removes write-protection. Protected images cannot be deleted or manipulated, except through card formatting, which erases all files.
  • Rotate: Rotates the current image 90 or 270 degrees clockwise.
  • Sound Memo: Records a short sound clip to accompany a captured image.
  • Erase All: Erases all files on the memory card, except protected ones.
  • Auto Play: Automatically plays all captured images in a slide show.
  • Print Order: Determines how many copies of the current image will be printed, with options for creating an index print, imprinting the date and time, and imprinting the file number.
  • Transfer Order: Marks images to be transferred to a computer later.

Setup Menu: This menu is available in all exposure modes, simply by pressing the Menu button and selecting the Setup tab.

  • Mute: Turns the camera's start-up, operation, self-time, shutter and playback sounds on and off.
  • Volume: Displays the volume settings for the camera's start-up, operation, self-timer, shutter, and playback sounds.
  • Power Saving: Accesses the camera's Auto Power Down and Display Off settings. Power Down can be enabled or disabled, and Display Off can be set to 10 / 20 / 30 seconds, or 1 / 2 / 3 minutes.
  • Date/Time: Sets the camera's internal calendar and clock.
  • Format: Formats the SD/MMC card, erasing all files (even those marked for write-protection).
  • File No. Reset: Resets file numbering with each new SD/MMC card. If disabled, the camera continues numbering in sequence, regardless of memory card.
  • Auto Rotate: Specifies whether images appear vertically in the LCD monitor when the camera is held vertically.
  • Distance Units: Sets the manual focus indicator to Meters/Centimeters or Feet/Inches.
  • Language: Sets the camera's menu language to one of 21 choices. English is the default setting.
  • Video System: Designates the camera's video-out signal as NTSC or PAL.

My Camera Menu: This is the third menu tab on the menu screen, and appears in every mode.

  • Theme: Selects a common theme for each My Camera menu settings item. Four options are available, the first one being Off. When a theme is selected, all of the following settings automatically adjust to that theme.
  • Startup Image: Sets the startup image when you turn on the camera to: Black screen, Canon logo, Canon logo w / sunset, nature scene. The latter two startup images can be overwritten with an image of your own. You can apply your User image in Playback mode by pressing the Display button and choosing an image from the SD/MMC card. The image is copied to the camera's internal memory, and is still displayed when the SD/MMC card is removed.
  • Startup Sound: Sets the startup sound when you turn on the camera to: No sound, Musical tone (1), Musical tone (2), or Birds chirping. You can apply User sounds in Playback mode by pressing the Display button and choosing a sound from the SD/MMC card. The sound is copied to the camera's internal memory, and is still displayed when the SD/MMC card is removed.
  • Operation Sound: Sets the sound when any control or switch is use (except the Shutter button). Options include Beep, Loud beep, Boing, Chirp and User. See the Startup Sound item for a description of User sounds.
  • Self-Timer Sound: Sets the sound that signals you when the shutter release is two seconds away. Options include Fast beeps (1), Fast beeps (2), Telephone ring, Howling and User. See the Startup Sound item for a description of User sounds.
  • Shutter Sound: Sets the shutter sound that you hear when you depress the Shutter button (there is no shutter sound in Movie mode). Options include Beep, Shutter sound, Boing, Bark and User. See the Startup Sound item for a description of User sounds.
  • My Camera Settings Content: This option lets you save as many as three custom My Camera settings, or turn the My Camera settings off.


In the Box

The PowerShot A520 arrives with the following items:

  • Wrist strap WS-200.
  • Two AA-type alkaline batteries.
  • USB cable IFC-400PCU.
  • AV cable AVC-DC300.
  • 16MB MMC card MMC-16M.
  • Software CD.
  • Instruction manual, software guide, and registration kit.


Recommended Accessories

Recommended Software: Rescue your images!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. I get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...


Sample Pictures

See our test images and detailed analysis here. The thumbnails below show a subset of our test images. Click on a thumbnail to see the full-size photo.

Indoor Flash






Viewfinder Accuracy


"Gallery" Photos
(Hopefully) coming soon...



See camera specifications here.


Picky Details

Cycle times, shutter lag, battery life, etc. can be found here.


Test Results

In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the PowerShot A520's "pictures" page.

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Canon PowerShot A520 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how the A520's images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

  • Color: Pleasing, "Canon" color. In common with most other consumer digital cameras, the A520 produced images with color somewhat brighter than that of the original subjects. Consumer cameras are made this way though, because that's the sort of color most consumers want, so the Canon A520 should be popular on this front. The camera's color balance was generally quite accurate, but you'll need to make use of its Incandescent or Manual white balance options for typical household incandescent lighting. Like most Canon cameras, the A520 shifts cyan colors slightly toward pure blues, apparently the reason for its excellent sky colors. All in all, very pleasing color on all subjects.

  • Exposure: Generally accurate exposure, but high contrast and no contrast adjustment. The A520 did a good job with exposure. It underexposed the high-key "Sunlight" portrait at the default setting, but an average amount of positive exposure compensation (+0.7 EV) brightened the midtones appropriately. Contrast was high, with bright highlights and dark shadows, though detail was still generally good. I'd like to see a little less contrast, or perhaps the contrast adjustment included that Canon offers on some of their higher-end models, but the A520 did well for its price/features range.

  • Resolution/Sharpness: Good resolution, 1,150 lines of "strong detail." The A520 performed well on the "laboratory" resolution test chart for its 4-megapixel class. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 1,000 lines per picture height vertically and horizontally. I found "strong detail" out to at least 1,100 lines vertically, 1,200 lines horizontally. "Extinction" of the target patterns didn't occur until about 1,500 lines.

  • Closeups: A small macro area with great detail. Flash has trouble up close though. The A520 performed very well in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of 2.03 x 1.52 inches (51 x 39 millimeters). Resolution was high and detail is strong throughout the frame, though the coins and brooch were soft due to the close shooting range. Details softened slightly toward the furthest corners of the frame, but were sharp on the dollar bill. (Most digital cameras produce images with soft corners when shooting in their Macro modes.) The A520's flash had trouble at such close range, and overexposed the majority of the image, leaving a strong shadow in the lower right corner of the frame. (Definitely plan on using external lighting for your close-in macro shots with the A520.)

  • Image Noise: Slightly higher than average image noise for its class. Some noise was present in the Canon A520's images, even at ISO 50, but it really wasn't visible until ISO 200. At ISO 400, the noise became pretty objectionable, but prints of ISO 400 shots looked fine at 5x7 inches and below.

  • Night Shots: Excellent low-light performance. Good color and exposure, with low image noise, even at the lowest light levels of this test. Pretty good low-light autofocus capability. (Fine for typical city night scenes.) The A520 produced clear, bright, usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux) limit of my test, with good color at the 100, 200, and 400 ISO settings. At ISO 50, images were bright down to the 1/8 foot-candle (1.3 lux) light level, though the target was visible at the lowest light level of the test. Noise was fairly low in most shots, though it increased with the higher intensity settings. At ISO 400, noise was quite high, but the pixels weren't so bright that they ruin the image. The A520's autofocus system worked down to a bit less than 1/2 foot-candle with the AF-assist light turned off, and down to about 1/4 foot-candle with it on. Since city street-lighting at night generally corresponds to a light level of about one foot-candle, the A520 should perform well in most average night settings.

  • Viewfinder Accuracy: A tight optical viewfinder, but very accurate LCD monitor. The A520's optical viewfinder is very tight, showing only 81 percent of the final image area at wide angle and telephoto zoom settings. The LCD monitor actually proved very slightly loose, showing just a bit more than what made it into the final frame, though results were near 100 percent accuracy. Given that I like LCD monitors to be as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the A520's LCD monitor performed pretty well here, but its optical viewfinder could use some help.

  • Optical Distortion: Higher than average barrel distortion at wide angle, no pincushion at telephoto. Good corner sharpness, almost no chromatic aberration. Geometric distortion on the A520 was about average at the wide-angle end, where I measured approximately 0.9 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared quite a bit better, as I found 0.05 percent barrel distortion (about one pixel) there. Chromatic aberration was virtually nonexistent, as I found only very faint coloration around the target elements in the right hand corners of the wide-angle image, and none at all at normal or telephoto focal lengths. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.) The A520's images were also sharper than average in the corners, where many digital camera lenses get quite soft.

  • Cycle Time and Shutter Lag: Average cycle time and shutter lag numbers. The Canon PowerShot A520's timing performance is solidly in the middle of the range for cameras in its price/performance class. Its full-autofocus shutter lag range of 0.88 - 0.94 second falls within the 0.8 - 1.0 second range that's typical for consumer digital cameras. (Although still way too slow in my opinion - Shutter lag is one area where most manufacturers really need to apply more development effort.) Shot to shot cycle times are workmanlike if not impressive, at 2.5 seconds in single shot mode, and 0.68 seconds (1.47 frames/second) in continuous mode, both times corresponding to shooting large/fine images.

  • Battery Life: Very good battery life, particularly for a 2-AA cell camera. Considering that it's powered by only two AA cells, the Canon PowerShot A520 showed very good battery life. Based on the "standard" 1600 mAh NiMH cells that I've used as a basis of comparison for the last several years, worst-case run time is projected at 136 minutes in record mode with the LCD turned on. Playback run time is 348 minutes, and run time in record mode with the LCD turned off is an exceptional 12.8 hours. (Don't get too excited though, the relatively inaccurate viewfinder on the A520 will have you using the LCD display to frame your shots most of the time.) Note though, that high-capacity NiMH cells these days have true capacities of well over 2000 mAh, so you can expect worst case run times more on the order of 170 minutes, just shy of three hours. I do still highly recommend that you pick up a couple of sets of high-capacity rechargeable AA batteries and a good-quality battery charger. - This will be an investment that pays itself back many times over the life of the camera.

  • Print Quality: Excellent print quality, excellent color, good-looking prints to 11x14 inches. ISO 400 images rough at 8x10, usable at 5x7, excellent at 4x6 inches. Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5000 here in the office. (See our Canon i9900 review for details on that model.) Looking at prints from the Canon PowerShot A520, we found that its output looked great at print sizes up to about 11x14 inches. (13x19 prints of its photos would probably be entirely suitable for hanging on a wall, but looked a little soft when we got up close to them.) When it came to high-ISO images, we found that the A520's shots captured at ISO 400 did indeed look pretty rough when printed at 8x10. They looked a lot better at 5x7 though, and entirely acceptable when printed at 4x6 size. All in all, very nice-looking photos from an attractively priced, easy to use digital camera.


Free Photo Lessons

Check out the Free Photo School program for lessons and tips on improving your photographs!
Simple pro lighting and use tips let you snap stunning photos. Check out our free Photo School area!

Featuring a 4.0-megapixel CCD, automatic, partial, or fully manual exposure control, and a wide range of preset shooting modes, the PowerShot A520 is another fine addition to Canon's A-series of digital cameras. Built on the same long-tested design as many A-series predecessors, the Canon A520 offers a lot in its compact package. Its combination of automatic and manual features make it very approachable for novices, but interesting for experienced users, the net result being a camera that will satisfy a broad range of interests and provide a good path for novice users to expand their photographic horizons as their experience grows. I'd like to see it equipped with a more accurate optical viewfinder, and its image noise at ISO 400 was on the high side, but the bottom line is that this is a camera that will meet the needs of the average consumer very well. Overall, a solid replacement for last year's A75 model, claiming its own place as a Dave's Pick.

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