Camera Comparo — Canon A640 & A720is

Post by blogger | November 19, 2007      

Canon has their merchandising down to a science. They could probably build a “point & shoot” digicam that did nearly anything imaginable, instead they flow new features at a snails pace, and never make one camera that has it all. Smart on their part, as we’re compelled to upgrade yearly. This season I succumbed to the lure of the Canon A720is with its long 6x zoom for better ski action shots, along with image stabilization that makes it possible to use the 35mm equivalent of a 210mm lens without the usual issues of camera shake. Those are just icing, the cake is pretty sweet as well. Read on.

Canon A720is
The diminutive Canon A720is uses only two AA batteries yet has 6x optical zoom and more.

Besides having a longer lens compared to our now venerable A640, my main point in picking up the ‘720 is its diminutive form factor. It fits much better in the variety of built-in camera pockets that savvy ski pack makers are building into their rigs (see Backcountry Access and Dakine), and saves 2.6 ounces of weight. That’s not without a price. We’ve become incredibly fond of fold-out LCDs such as that of the A640. Not only are they useful for creative shots such as self portraiture, but you can reverse them for damage prevention during storage. The ‘720 LCD is of the fixed variety. It can’t be reversed for protection and has no raised rim around its perimeter to protect it from rubbing/scratching while in storage. (Solution for scratch prevention is any of the clear plastic LCD protectors you can get, in our case that be clear packing tape.)

Interestingly, both camera’s LCD’s measure the same in view area, though the 720 LCD looks larger. So don’t get fooled by that if you’re shopping.

Comparison, Canon A640 & A720is
The two rigs in question, A640 to left, A720is to right. They’re both the same height, ‘720 is shorter and thinner enough to be noticeably smaller.

Besides lacking the foldout LCD, perhaps the biggest handling downside to the ‘720 is that dread condition known as “shrinkage.” For example, the A640 zoom control has a sharply protruding nib that’s easy to operate with a gloved finger. Not so the ‘720, which has nothing more than a small, slightly raised and textured area for your fingertip to move. Ditto for some of the other controls such as the main selector button, though the smaller buttons on the back are virtually the same on both cameras. Shrinkage is of course what you pay for less weight and size while still having enough LCD to actually use, but it’s worth mentioning.

As for other form issues, the prosumer photog who uses a tripod may need to remove or swap their memory card while the camera remains “set.” You can’t do that with the ‘640 as the tripod socket is next to the access door. Thankfully, the A720’s access door and tripod socket are at opposite ends of the camera — though getting the card out with the camera upright on a tripod means the batteries will drop out at the same time. I frequently use a tripod for product photography, so this is all important. But image stabilization (IS) is making that less of an issue as it’s allowing me to do more handheld shots without setting up extra lighting or introducing the harsh effect of using the on-camera flash. For example, I did all the non-flash shots in our Axon unboxing using the A720, handheld with window light.

Canon A720is photo sample
Telephoto racked fully out to 200 mm equiv, 30th of a second, ISO 1600, totally handheld with no bracing, lit with single 75 watt bulb 7 feet away on ceiling.

Indeed, speaking of tripods, cool thing about the A720is is you’re less likely to need one. The image stabilization “IS” feature really works. You can shoot two, even three shutter speeds lower than you normally would, and by bracing the camera you can go really deep.

Combine IS with a max ISO of 1600 and the creative zone of low light “street” style photography is yours. IS is great for shooting parties, hut interior scenes, stuff like that — but actually a necessity when you’re using a lightweight shake prone camera that has this long of a telephoto. You can turn IS on and off, and it even has a mode for pan shots that allows you to move the camera horizontally without triggering the IS. From a technical standpoint, what’s fascinating is that IS works by actually shifting the lens to compensate for camera movement. How that’s achieved in a camera this small, with a long lens, is something I have trouble even imagining.

The photo of the Dynafit Zzero boot above was done with a single 75 watt bulb about 7 feet away, handheld camera with no bracing. Shot at max 1600 ISO it has a lot of noise, but that can give a grainy “painterly” effect that works will for interior “lifestyle” shots and such. I even like the grainy effect with the Zzero boot, as the usual retinal discomfort of the green is nicely muted. I did my usual Photoshop pre-publication steps with this photo, but nothing beyond that in terms of manipulation, the main thing to note is that it’s not blurred. Without IS the shot would be unusable.

More points of comparison:

– Weights (with AA lithium batteries): A640 10.6 oz (302 gr); A720 8 oz, (226 gr)

– A720 lacks the “Custom Settings” option on that the A640 has on the mode dial, that loads a custom pre-set of nearly all available camera settings. I’ve found this to be a terrific feature so it’s indeed missed. As consolation, the nearly useless (to us) instant print button on the camera is customizable to a number of “one press” settings. For example, you can set it so one press adjusts the camera’s white balance (while pointing at something that’s supposed to be white, like snow or a sheet of paper).

– LCD size: Both the same (1.5 x 2 inch), A720 does not fold out

– Zoom: A720 is 6x, 35/210 35mm equivalent; A640 is 4x 35/140

– Both cameras have flash exposure compensation, an essential in our opinion.

– Both cameras have an 8.3 million pixel sensor, A640 megapixel count is jacked up by post processing to a max of 10 MP, while the ‘720 stays at 8 megapixels. In our experience, 8 MP is plenty and can easily be upsized in Photoshop by about 10 % with little to no loss in quality. What’s more, the ‘720 uses Digic III software to run the camera, resulting in noticeably better initial photos compared to the Digic II of the A640 (though both are great). Thus, we feel the Digic III photos at 8 MP are easily the equivalent of 10 MP from the A640.

– ISO max with A640 is 800, A720 is 1600. We like that for artistic shooting but it may be of little concern to most people. Both cameras have noticeably better quality at the lower ISO numbers.

– Continuous shooting mode is important for ski action photography with a point & shoot, sadly the A720 falls short in that area, with 1.3 shots/second compared to A640 at 1.5 shots/second. It’s weird that’s so, as the ‘720 is moving less data and has improved software. One wonders if this is throttled back on purpose to prevent fast continuous shooting that would compete with pro level cameras. Apparently some of this is dependent on how fast your memory card is, so when faster cards come down in price we’ll do some experimenting.

– As we mentioned above but bears repeating, Digic III is noticeably better than Digic II in terms of image quality, but not so much it’s a deal breaker.

– Battery life: A640 goes forever with 4 AA lithium cells, A720 seems last as well, though I’d imagine it’ll be less stout.

– Cold weather performance: We’ve used this camera in temperatures as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures above around 20 F there seems to be little to no performance degradation, but when colder we noticed the camera slows down, making it tough to take shots in quick succession.

– Warning: We learned the hard way that if you have the camera in Manual or TV mode with a high shutter speed, but have the flash set to “always on,” you will see no warning that the flash is on and the camera will default to 1/500 second during every shot (max flash sync speed). In other words, the camera will still appear to be set to a higher shutter speed you picked, but will actually take the shot at 1/500. This can be frustrating in bright light when you don’t notice the flash going off, as your shots may be way over exposed and you don’t know why. So something to watch out for. We had this happened during a ski trip and thought the camera was broken.

– Both cameras will take Canon add-on converter lenses.

– As we covered in another blog, you can get a firmware hack for the A640 that’s simply awesome, while a firmware hack for the A720 is not available at this time. When that changes we’ll blog it. Till then we’re stuck with the features Canon chooses to hand us, and it’s not a bad feature set at that.

Conclusion: We’re fortunate to have both cameras. If I had to own only one I’d still pick the A640 because of the fold out LCD and custom settings storage, along with better continuous mode shooting and the available firmware hack. Still, I’ll probably carry the ‘720 on most trips just because it’s easier to pack and has the telephoto for ski shots.


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7 Responses to “Camera Comparo — Canon A640 & A720is”

  1. Rando Swede November 20th, 2007 8:31 am

    Lou- Ecellent comparo. Just added the 720 my wish list. Curious… what photo editing software do you use? I don’t need the full Photoshop suite because I can’t see myself spending hours tweaking. Any thoughts on PS Elements? Other recommendations? Web stuff and the occasional print are about the extent of my needs. Thanks.

  2. Lou November 20th, 2007 8:46 am

    Rando, I use Photoshop, PS Elements is fine and other photo editing alternatives are good as well, including the software that comes with the camera.

  3. Pigpen November 20th, 2007 9:25 am

    We love to ski more than we love to hate………..Story about Serbs and Albanians in yestedays New York Post. Snow conquers all. Much love. Check it out.

  4. Justin December 1st, 2007 8:33 am

    I have an Olympus Stylus 410 from about 4 years ago. One complaint I have with it is that it seems fairly slow, from focusing to actually taking a picture. Is this Cannon (or new cameras in general) faster? Is there some rating or something like that that gives an indication of how quickly it can actually take pictures? Thanks.

  5. Brian December 24th, 2007 3:46 pm

    Really enjoyed your review and comparison of the A720IS. Just picked up this model a day ago. Horrible as it sounds, I destroyed our A620 we have had for a couple of years when it fell into the recliner. I didn’t know this and the recliner wouldn’t recline. I forced it to recline not knowing that my poor A620 was causing the issue and nearly split it in half 🙁 But now we have the A720IS. I have a question. I always have red eye issues with these cameras and I am wondering what I am doing wrong, if anything. I don’t know much about all the different settings on this camera, yet, but is there something other than having red eye reduction turned on to avoid so much red eye? Any advice would be helpful 🙂 Thanks again for the informative review!

  6. Fritz January 13th, 2008 7:07 am

    Do not judge the image quality by reviewing the images on the camera’s LCD. It’s low count will not really show you what wonderful images the camera can produce when printed.

    Go to “Image Comparator” and look at the images of the A720is and the Canon G-9 (side by side). I think you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference. (I own both)

    The A720is is not perfect, but I don’t think that model of digital camera will every by produced. hehehe

  7. Brian February 12th, 2008 10:14 am

    Lou, the firmware hack is now available for the a720is. I downloaded it onto the an SD card and was messing around with it last night.

    I bought the a720is based on your review and am liking the camera so far. The ergonomics are far better than my old SD200 and it’s still small enough to fit in the camera pockets on BCA Alp 55 and Marmot LaMeije.

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