Canon PowerShot A720 IS

That's one tough camera for hiking!

I like taking pictures, but I mostly use a bulky DSLR for that (a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark-II primarily). I also like hiking in Lapland, often for extended periods up to six weeks, and my backpack is heavy... So in 2010 I bought a used Canon PowerShot A720 IS to take photos when hiking. Oh boy, did I get my money's worth! When choosing this camera, my criteria were:

  1. it uses AA batteries!!! This was an absolute must!
  2. it supports CHDK (though ultimately I never did find much use for that)
  3. it is relatively small and lightweight (no, I don't want an almost-DSLR like the PowerShot S5 IS, with most of the bulk but none of the benefits of an actual DSLR)
  4. it has reasonable manual control features (even without CHDK)

Why AA batteries? Because I mostly do not use this point-and-shoot camera for anything else—only hiking, once or twice a year. Such infrequent use is really bad for the well-being of proprietary lithium battery packs, but on the rare occasions when I do use the camera, I need several spare batteries as well (because I use it for several weeks without a chance to recharge). Low self-discharge NiMH AA cells are what fits the bill—they're cheap, well behaved, and find loads of other use as well. I have found Sanyo/Panasonic 2000 mAh Eneloops to be very good for all purposes. I have no experience of higher-capacity later-generation Eneloops, because these old ones just refuse to die!  :)

The A720 IS was introduced around 2007, so it's definitely not a hot new product. It has "only" 8.0 megapixels and a "modest" 6× optical zoom, and the sensor goes to "just" ISO 1600, with ISO 400 being all-around usable. But it does have lens-shift image stabilization and good manual adjustments i.e. it has P, Tv, Av and M modes, +/− 2 EV exposure compensation in 1/3 stop increments, flash with fully manual control (though not very fine-grained) and even 2nd curtain sync. Still, it's not trying to be a professional camera, or an especially rugged one either—it's just a plain, plasticky point-and-shoot. But man, oh man, has it ever stood up to use! It has survived my 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 summer hikes, totaling some 28 weeks out there in the wild, plus several shorter excursions, including some in winter. This camera has been through hell, as far as cheap plasticky consumer electronics are concerned! Along the way it has seen all kinds of use and abuse, absolutely stupid weather, rain, and dampness in general for prolonged periods—things I would never have expected any compact camera to take! In fact, light snowfall killed the battery grip on my EOS 5D DSLR before I obtained my A720 IS! So this is one tough, tough camera!!!

It was so tough, and such a good performer overall, that when I saw another A720 IS on an online auction site in 2020, I grabbed it as well. At that point, the model was 13 years old, but still fit the bill for my use just fine! (And I got it really cheap, can you believe?) So now I have a spare, in case the first one ever does break.

Or rather, I have two spares, because...

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

...soon after picking up the second A720 IS, I found a used PowerShot SX120 IS in good condition, and it's now a contender to take over from the venerable A720 IS. It was introduced in 2009 (so it's all of two years newer technology), has a whopping 10 Mpix and a 10× zoom, but is otherwise very similar (i.e. it's a plasticky compact, has lens-shift image stabilization, and the ISO range ends at 1600, ISO400 still being quite usable). Its looks are not quite as retro, though. But let's see if it can handle the elements as well as the A720 IS! For my money, the A720 IS is the king of bad weather conditions!

I may have slightly overpaid for the SX120 IS, but no matter. And I wouldn't mind at all paying up for a brand new aluminum-body (or is it magnesium that's all the rage right now) compact camera, one with a more modern image sensor, if only I could find one that takes AA batteries! But I honestly haven't put much effort into finding one, as even the plastic A720 IS just refuses to die...  :)

*** UPDATE! ***   No, this camera does not handle the elements nearly as well as the A720 IS! I took this camera with me on my 2021 hike, and after one single day of rain, the display fogged up on the inside, and the image stabilizer went berserk, rumbling like crazy even when deactivated! Everything did get back to normal after a day of drying in the sunshine and wind, but this camera obviously cannot hack bad weather! Don't get me wrong, this is otherwise a fine camera (I would otherwise prefer this to the A720 IS), and this lack of waterproofness is what I'd expect from a cheap plastic toy camera like this. It just goes to show, how awesome the A720 IS is in that respect!

Battery issues

Not that the A720 IS was perfect, mind you. Like many PowerShots, it does have a tendency to complain of depleted batteries, even when they are freshly charged, as your favorite search engine can confirm. The "toothpick fix" did nothing for my camera. I know there are instances where the solder joints of the battery contacts to the main circuit board have broken, causing these symptoms. But in my own experience, this problem mostly happens:
  1. when the batteries are fully charged, just out of the charger. That's when their voltage changes the fastest, as it falls from the "fully charged" voltage of around 1.5 V/cell to the "nominal" voltage of 1.2 V/cell. It seems the camera mistakes this rapid voltage change for alkalines that are about to die. Just ignore the warning and keep using the batteries—if the camera demands you change them, just open and close the battery compartment lid and try again. Once the voltage settles at 1.2 V/cell, the camera will stop pestering you about it. Then it will just work for hundreds of shots without complaint.
  2. when the batteries are, in fact, depleted or otherwise worn out (well, doh). If you have been using them for a couple hundred shots, maybe it is time to recharge them. Also, a digital camera does consume significant instantaneous current, and NiMH cells don't last forever. If they've been recharged hundreds of times already, maybe they've already done their job. Also check whether their terminals are corroded—the A720 IS handles dampness just fine, but the batteries may actually start to rust!
  3. when the coin cell backup battery is worn out!!! This is weird—when the CR1220 battery (which maintains the camera's real-time clock and settings) is running low, that somehow causes the camera to complain its main batteries are running down! Replacing the backup battery immediately solved the problem for me! So when new, fully charged NiMH batteries give you grief all the time, try replacing the coin cell first! (I'm glad I did, before disassembling the camera to resolder joints and/or to replace the electrolytics in its SMPS.)
I don't know whether similar issues crop up with the SX120 IS. I doubt I'll be using that camera enough to find out, because of its aversion to rain.

Antti J. Niskanen <uuki@iki.fi>