Canon PowerShot SD500 Review

Canon wins very high marks with this tiny camera.
Canon wins very high marks with this tiny camera.
Canon wins very high marks with this tiny camera.


  • Incredibly small; wonderful picture quality


  • Relatively short-lived proprietary battery; expensive

DT Editors' Rating


This very compact, sleek 7-megapixel digicam is amazing. Smaller than the proverbial deck of cards but about as thick, the SD500 (around $450) is truly a go anywhere point-and-shoot digicam. It slips so easily into a pocket you’ll take it with you everywhere and that’s a good thing since you’ll grab great spontaneous photographs all of the time. And it’s light years ahead of any cameraphone, today’s chic casual photography solution.

The all-metal SD500 has a 3x optical zoom with a 37mm-111mm range (35mm equivalent) that mirrors the classic film point-and-shoot zoom. Unlike 20th Century film cameras, this one has a large LCD screen to frame and review your images (2 inches rated a decent 118K pixels). This camera does not have all the bells-and-whistles found on higher-priced Canons but it’s clearly not designed for the frustrated Lee Friedlanders out there. It’s for the person who wants style, convenience, simple operation and good quality… meaning about 99 percent of the people on the planet!

*Editor’s note 9/7/05: Canon is introducing an updated version of this camera, the SD550 for $499. The key differences between them are the SD550’s larger LCD screen (2.5 versus 2 inches), four new scene modes including Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks) as well as an improved movie mode. With the introduction of the newer model, the price of the SD500 is quickly dropping to around $400, making it, per David Elrich, one of the best deals this season.

Features and Design

Although not quite a candidate for the Museum of Modern Art’s design hall-of-fame, the SD500 is quite attractive with its brushed metal faceplate and silvery accents. It’s nice but Canon rather pretentiously calls it a “Perpetual Curve Design.” An industrial design icon from Raymond Loewy it certainly isn’t but it’s better than usual slab of plastic and metal foisted on the public and is much more attractive the previous ELPHs. Measuring a mere 3.5 x 2.2 x 1 (WHD, in inches) and weighing 6 ounces without the battery, this ELPH is about as tiny as you’d like it to get.

Consumer alert: when cameras start getting this small it’s absolutely imperative you do a hands-on test at the local store. Everyone’s hands are different so what I might find comfortable, you’ll think disastrous. For me, this camera is about as small as I’d like to go. That said you should also check out the raft of thin digicams with large LCD screens from Sony, Fuji, Kodak, Konica Minolta, Casio and others to see if the fit is more to your liking. Unfortunately, most are 5 megapixels, not the sparkling 7MP of this one but the Nikon CoolPix 7900 and Casio Exilim Zoom EX-750 are pretty close and slightly less expensive ($399).

This ELPH’s 3x optical zoom retracts completely into the body and a built-in lens cover protects it. When closed, the entire package is very compact. Some internet posters have complained the case scratches easily but I didn’t see that and I really didn’t have the heart–or extra cash–to “key” the SD500 to see if the reports were true. The top of the camera has a power button, shutter and zoom lens toggle switch. The back is dominated by the 2-inch LCD screen, a tiny optical viewfinder, the usual four-way arrow ring, a display keys that turns off the LCD when you want to save power (and you will) or boosts the brightness, a direct print button and Menu key that gets you to the basic set-up of the camera. The menu is very straightforward and easy to adjust.

There are a number of cryptic icons on the back but a few minutes with the owner’s manual (194-pages) clears them up. It’s nowhere near as confusing as the previously reviewed Canon PowerShot S2 IS.

On the far right is the mode dial with just five settings: playback, full auto, manual, SCN (for scenes) and movie. Simply turn the dial and the camera’s ready to do your bidding.

The camera is supplied with the usual list of accessories: wrist strap, USB and A/V cables, battery/charger, 32MB SD card, software CD ROM and three owner’s manuals (for the camera, direct printing and a software starter guide). We suggest you budget for a high-speed SD card with read and write speeds of around 10 megabits per second. This will help overall operation. We used a SanDisk 1GB Extreme III card but an Ultra II would’ve been fine. All of the major flash memory makers offer these high-speed cards. A Google search will help you find the best deals. As a benchmark Costco has the 1GB Ultra II for $89.

Canon SD500
Photos Courtesy of Canon USA


I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at how responsive newer cameras are. Of the many digicams from top-tier brands I’ve tested recently, startup time is about a second or two and saving hefty files to memory is film camera quick. The Canon SD500 is a fine example of this newer technology. Using the DIGIC II processor originally found in much more expensive EOS D-SLRs, this is one speedy ELPH. It works so fast, you’ll have a hard time believing it’s a 7-megapixel camera with a maximum file size of 3072 x 2304 pixels.

Since this camera is aimed at a more casual user, it’s supplied with a Quick Start Guide, something Canon should include with all its cameras. The guide tells you how to charge the supplied–and proprietary–lithium ion battery, load it and the SD memory card then set the clock. A nice diagram explains the major features/functions and in no time, you’re ready to start taking pictures. It even explains how to move images to your computer. Canon is to be commended for this and so should every other company that makes digital imaging as easy as it should be.

As with most new Canons, the SD500 delivered good photos with little sign of purple fringing even when shooting lovely New Jersey trees and skies. When the camera was good to go, I walked around the house shooting the newest blooming blue hydrangea flowers and the colors were spot on. Where I did notice some issues is with the LCD screen; it had its problems in bright sunlight even with the anti-reflective coating. When this occurred it was time to use the tiny peephole viewfinder that does an adequate job but you’ll definitely go right back to the LCD when the light permits. You can adjust the intensity of the monitor if needed.

Canon states you can take 160 shots with the LCD on but it didn’t last quite that long for our test which included a lot of zooming and taking video clips (you can zoom in the movie mode too, a nice plus).  Like many newer cameras, the ELPH records VGA clips at 640 x 480 pixel resolution at 30 frames per second. As we’ve said before, it’s not Mini DV or MPEG2 quality but it’s a fun feature nonetheless. Unfortunately, the built-in mic picked up some of the camera’s zoom and shutter mechanism noise.

The SD500’s flash tends to overpower close-up subjects, unlike the more accurate Sonys. Be aware of this in tight situations but in more normal distances, quality was good since it has an AF Assist beam, one of the key features any digicam must have, IMHO. And it’s very simple to change the flash mode since there’s a dedicated key for it.

Although there is a manual mode, it’s limited. You can adjust the shutter speed in the Long Shutter mode but you can’t adjust the aperture. That said the ELPH buyer probably doesn’t want or care about such trifles. If the spirit moves you, there’s adjustable exposure compensation, white balance, ISO (50-400) and a number of picture effects such as black-and-white, sepia and others. Noise didn’t become an issue until hitting 200 and above.

Along with full auto, the camera has a number of Scene modes including the traditional ones such as Portrait, Landscape, Beach, Snow and so on. There are also settings for Foliage, Fireworks, Indoor, Kids & Pets and Night Snapshot. With these options the camera sets all the parameters and the results part are fine for the most. For example, Kids & Pets is basically a high-speed shutter setting to capture fast-moving subjects such as a hyperactive three-year-old. With no tyke around, the camera did an O.K. job capturing a frisky kitty. And if you’re feeling creative, My Colors lets you add a blast of color to an image so you can grab snaps or videos with quite an edge to them like something out of a Rob Zombie creation.

Canon SD500
Photos Courtesy of Canon USA


Canon wins very high marks with this tiny camera. Picture quality is excellent, the form factor is terrific but not museum quality. One of the ELPH’s few negatives is the proprietary lithium ion battery that really doesn’t have the juice to keep you shooting for a day. A spare is mandatory as is a high-speed SD card. The LCD screen isn’t the best in the world but it’s more than adequate. Beyond that, you’ll be shooting like crazy and since it’s so small you’ll take it everywhere. And that’s what photography is all about.


  • 7-megapixel picture quality
  • High-quality 3x Canon optical zoom
  • Extremely fast with no shutter lag
  • High quality movie mode
  • Accepts affordable SD cards
  • Nice software bundle and documentation


  • LCD screen has issues with strong light
  • Possibly too small for some users
  • Expensive for a point-and-shoot digicam
  • Uses proprietary lithium ion battery;
  • buying a spare is mandatory
  • Also budget for larger high-speed SD card