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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot A85  
   

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 18, 2004
Last Updated: December 31, 2011

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The Canon PowerShot A85 ($299) is the 4 Megapixel sibling of the PowerShot A75. The two cameras are identical except for the difference in resolution, and the frame rate in the continuous shooting and movie modes. Both cameras are updates of the incredibly popular PowerShot A70, which was one of my favorite cameras in 2003. Some of the changes between the A70 and A85 are:

  • 4 Megapixel CCD
  • Larger, higher resolution LCD display
  • More scene modes
  • More focus points
  • Date imprinting on photos
  • Print/Share button

Like the A70 and A75, the PowerShot A85 is has a 3X optical zoom, full manual controls, support for conversion lenses, and more.

If you're ready to learn about the A85, start reading!

Due note that since they are nearly identical, I will be reusing much of the A75 review here to save time.

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot A85 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 4.0 effective Megapixel Canon PowerShot A85 camera
  • 32MB CompactFlash card
  • Four AA alkaline batteries
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROMs featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions, ArcSoft Camera Suite, and drivers
  • 154 page camera manual + software manual (both printed)

Canon includes a 32MB "high speed" CompactFlash card with the camera. I've estimated the speed of the card at around 8X, and you need not spend money on anything faster, as the camera can't take advantage of it. The 32MB card won't hold too many 4 Megapixel photos, so I recommend buying a larger card along with the camera. A 128MB or 256MB card is a good place to start. The A85 uses Type I CompactFlash cards, which come in sizes of up to 2GB.

When it comes to batteries, Canon leaves it up to you. The A85 includes four AA non-rechargeable alkaline batteries in the box, which won't last long and end up in the trash (or better yet, the recycling bin). My recommendation is to buy two or more sets of NiMH rechargeables (2100 mAh or better), plus a charger, which will last longer and will be more economical too. Canon estimates that you can take about 140 photos (using the CIPA battery life standard) with the included alkaline batteries. After a little extrapolation I'd say that you'd get about 280 shots using 2300 mAh NiMH rechargeables.

The A85 has a built-in lens cover so there are no lens caps to worry about. It's a fairly small camera -- it's not Digital ELPH-sized, though.

There are quite a few accessories available for this camera. I've put them into this handy chart:

Accessory Model # Price Why you want it
Wide-angle lens WC-DC52 $90 0.8X wide converter brings wide end down to 24.5 mm. LA-DC52C conversion lens adapter required.
Telephoto lens TC-DC52 $100 2.4X teleconverter gives you a 252 mm tele end. Requires LA-DC52C adapter.
Close-up lens 250D $70 Get closer to your subject while in macro mode. Requires LA-DC52C adapter.
Conversion lens adapter LA-DC52C $19 Required for conversion lenses. Also lets you use any 52 mm filter.
Underwater case WP-DC30 $180 Take your A85 up to 40 meters underwater!
Battery/charger kit CBK4-200 $50 Includes four 2300 mAh batteries plus a charger
AC adapter ACK600 $55 Power the camera without using batteries
Soft case SC-PS600 ?? Protect your camera from the elements

Not bad for $299 camera, eh?


ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)


ZoomBrowser (Windows XP)

Canon includes version 17.1 (which is actually a little outdated) of their excellent Digital Camera Solutions software with the A85. Included in this package are ZoomBrowser (for Windows) or ImageBrowser (for Mac), PhotoStitch (for making panoramic photos), plus TWAIN and WIA drivers for Windows. Zoom/ImageBrowser can be used for downloading images from your camera, basic editing of your photos, and photo printing.


RemoteCapture (Mac OS X)

Also built-in to the "Browser" software is RemoteCapture, which you can use to control your camera over the USB connection. Images are saved directly to your computer.


PhotoImpression 5 (Mac OS X)

Also included is version 5 of ArcSoft's PhotoImpression software, which is getting better with each version. Here you can do more photo retouching and printing. The user interface is quite good, as well. VideoImpression is also included, for editing those short movie clips the camera can record.

While still better than average, I've found Canon's recent manuals to be a little more cluttered than they used to be. The information is all there -- just be prepared for lots of small print and "notes" in each section.

Look and Feel

The PowerShot A85 looks just like the A75 (aside from the color of the grip) and is very similar to the old A70 as well. The A85 is a compact camera that may not fit in your pocket like the Digital ELPH cameras, but it's still small and comfortable to carry around. The controls are well-placed, and it's easy to hold.

The dimensions of the A85 are 101.0 x 64.0 x 35.0 mm / 4.0 x 2.5 x 1.2 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs 200 grams / 7.1 ounces empty (slightly lighter than the A70). The camera is made of both metal and plastic, and everything is pretty solid, save for the door over the CompactFlash slot.

With that out of the way, we can begin our tour of the A85 now.

The A85 has the same lens as both the A70 and A75. That lens is an F2.8-4.8, 3X optical zoom model, with a focal range of 5.4 - 16.2 mm. That's equivalent to 35 - 105 mm.

As I mentioned, the A85 supports add-on lenses. To use them, you press the button to the lower-left of the lens, and remove the plastic ring around it. You then twist on the lens adapter, and attach the conversion lens to it.

To the upper-right of the lens is the built-in flash. The flash has a working range of 0.46 - 4.2 m at wide-angle, and 0.46 - 2.5 m at telephoto (same as the A75). You cannot attach an external flash to the A85.

Below the flash is the autofocus illuminator, which is always a welcome sight. This bright orange lamp helps the camera focus when lighting is low. All cameras should have this (and they still don't).

The other item of interest in the front of the camera is the microphone, which is located just above-left from the lens.

One of the big changes between the A70 and A75/A85 was the LCD size and resolution. The A70 had a 1.5" LCD with a measly 78,000 pixels, which isn't so hot. The A75 and A85 have a much nicer 1.8" screen with 118,000 pixels. It's bright, fluid, and sharp. One negative about the screen is that it does not automatically "gain up" in low light, which can make it hard to see anything when it's dark.

Above the LCD is the optical viewfinder, which is decent-sized. There is no diopter adjustment for those of us with less than perfect vision though.

Below the LCD are two buttons (versus four on the A70). The button on the left is the Print/Share button, while the display button toggles the LCD and what's shown on it on and off.

So what's the deal with the Print/Share button? When connected to a Direct Print or PictBridge-enabled printer, pressing this button will let you print your photos. When connected to a Windows PC, the following screen will be shown on the LCD:


Direct Transfer menu

As you can see, you can transfer all images, new images, images that you've DPOF marked, or you can manually select some. The wallpaper option sets the chosen image as the background picture on your PC!


Function Menu

To the right of the LCD are two more buttons: menu and function/delete photo. Pressing the function button brings up the function menu, which has the following options:

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • Flash output (1/3, 2/3, full) - only shown while in "M" mode
  • White Balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom) - see below
  • Drive (Single shot, continuous shooting, self-timer [2 or 10 secs]) - see below
  • ISO (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Photo effect (Off, vivid color, neutral color, low sharpening, sepia, black & white)
  • Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Image Size/Quality - see chart later in review

The custom white balance feature (which is finally becoming more common) lets you shoot a white or gray card, to get perfect color in any lighting.

While some higher end Canon models have two continuous shooting modes, the A85 has one. In this mode, you can take pictures at a rate of up to 1.5 frames/sec (versus 2.2 fps on the A75). I took 7 pictures in a row at the highest quality setting before the camera started to slow down. The LCD skips a bit between each frame, making following a movie subject a bit challenging (but at least there's the optical viewfinder).

The photo effect feature lets you quickly change the color or sharpness of your photos. You can use photo effects in any mode, including movie mode.

To the right of those two buttons is the newly redesigned four-way controller, which is much easier to use than the one on the A70. In addition to navigating the menus, it can also be used to adjust:

  • Up - Flash setting (Auto, flash on, flash off) - you turn redeye reduction on in the record menu
  • Down - Macro + manual focus


Manual focus

The manual focus feature lets you use the left and right buttons on the four-way controller to focus the lens yourself. A guide showing the current focus distance is shown on the LCD. The camera lacks the useful "focus check" feature, which enlarges the center of the frame, which you can use to ensure that your subject is in-focus.

The final items on the back of the camera is the mode switch, located at the top in the above photo, and the DC-in port, at the lower-left. The mode switch moves the camera between record and playback mode. The DC-in port, which is kept under a rubber cover, is where you'll plug in the optional AC adapter.

Up on top of the A85 are the power button, mode dial, shutter release button, zoom controller, and speaker.

The options on the mode wheel include:

Option Function
Movie Mode More on this later
Stitch Assist For help making panoramic shots
Scene mode

NEW on the A75/A85. Choose from foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, underwater, indoor.

Slow Shutter Self explanatory
Fast Shutter
Night Scene
Landscape
Portrait
Fully Auto Point-and-shoot mode, many options are locked
Programmed Auto Camera chooses shutter speed and aperture. All menu options are unlocked.
Shutter Priority (Tv) You choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the correct aperture. You can choose from a number of speeds ranging from 15 sec - 1/2000 sec. The 1/16000 sec shutter speed is only available above F3.2 at wide-angle and F5.6 at telephoto. The 1/2000 shutter speed is only available above F4.5 at wide-angle and F8.0 at telephoto.
Aperture Priority (Av) You pick the aperture, the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The choices range from F2.8 - F8.0 and will vary depending on the focal range used.
Full Manual You pick the aperture and shutter speed. See above for values.

One thing I loved about the A70 were all the manual controls and the A85 continues the tradition. You may not need them right away, but when you get more familiar with photography, you'll grow to love them (trust me on this one).

The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.5 seconds. I counted seven steps in the zoom range, so don't expect too much precision.

Here is one side of the PowerShot A85. Under a rubber cover, you'll find the USB (1.1) and A/V out ports.

On this side of the camera, behind a pretty flimsy plastic door, is the camera's CompactFlash slot. This is a Type I slot, which means that you can't use the Microdrive.

The included high speed 32MB card is shown at right.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. You can see the plastic tripod mount, which is located at the center of the camera. The battery compartment is down here as well, and it holds four AA batteries.

Using the Canon PowerShot A85

Record Mode

The A85 takes a little over two seconds to extend the lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures -- pretty snappy.

The autofocus speeds on the A85 are not going to win any awards, with the camera taking about 0.8 seconds at wide-angle to lock focus after you press the shutter release halfway. At the telephoto setting it can take 1.0 - 1.3 seconds to lock focus depending on the subject. Low light focusing was good thanks to the AF-assist lamp. It's too bad that the LCD is too dark to be usable in those situations.

The A85 had very little shutter lag, even at slower shutter speeds.

Shot-to-shot speed is excellent. You will wait for just 1.5 seconds before you can take another shot.

Press the Function button as the picture is being written to the memory card, and you can delete it.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the A85:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # Images on 32MB card
(included)
Large
(2272 x 1704)
Superfine 2.0 MB 14
Fine 1.1 MB 27
Normal 556 KB 54
Medium 1
(1600 x 1200)
Superfine 1002 KB 30
Fine 558 KB 54
Normal 278 KB 108
Medium 2
(1024 x 768)
Superfine 570 KB 53
Fine 320 KB 94
Normal 170 KB 174
Small
(640 x 480)
Superfine 249 KB 120
Fine 150 KB 196
Normal 84 KB 337

The A85 does not support TIFF or RAW file formats.

Images are named IMG_####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9900. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace or erase the memory card.

Now, onto the menus!

I already mentioned the Function menu earlier in the review. There's a regular menu system as well, which is small and easy-to-navigate. Here's what you'll find in the record menu:

  • AiAF (on/off) - turns on the 9-point autofocus system; if off, camera focuses on whatever's in the center of the frame
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - it's best to keep this turned off
  • Review (Off, 2-10 sec)
  • Date stamp (Off, date, date & time) - print the date and/or time on your photos

Do note that some of those options are not available in "auto" mode.

I should mention the date stamp feature since there's been some confusion about it. To use this feature you must use the function menu's resolution option to select "postcard size", which is 1600 x 1200. Then and only then can you print the date and/or time on your photos. It should be an option at all the resolutions in my opinion!

There is also a setup menu on the A85, so let's take a look at that:

  • Mute (on/off) - turn off those annoying beep sounds!
  • Volume
    • Startup volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Operation volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Self-timer volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Shutter volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Playback volume (Off, 1-5)
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Date/time (set)
  • Card format
  • File number reset (on/off) - maintain file numbering
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos for you
  • Distance units (m/cm, ft/in)
  • Language (English, German, French, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)

In addition, there is a "My Camera" menu, where you can customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your A85 makes, providing your own sounds and pictures if you want. You can also shut all of that off, which may not be such a bad idea.

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The A85 did a fine job with our usual macro test shot. The image is quite "smooth" which seems to be a Canon trait these days. Colors are saturated and look good. The manual white balance feature easily handling my 600W quartz studio lamps.

In macro mode you can get as close to your subject as 5 cm at wide-angle (55 x 41 mm recordable area) and 26 cm at telephoto (92 x 69 mm recordable area). If you buy the close-up lens attachment, those distances drop to 3 and 13 cm, respectively.

The A85 also did a nice job with our night test shot. With manual control over the shutter speed, I was easily able to take in enough light. The buildings are sharp, there's a bit of noise, and there's a moderate amount of purple fringing. The easy way to get rid of the purple is to use a smaller aperture (higher F-number), just like this.

Using that same shot, let's see how the A85 performed at the different ISO sensitivities:


ISO 50
View Full Size Image

ISO 100
View Full Size Image

ISO 200
View Full Size Image

ISO 400
View Full Size Image

Things start getting noisy at ISO 100 and just go up from there. ISO 400 is especially nasty.

If you read my PowerShot A95 review you know that it did worse than the A75 and A85 in the redeye test, and I still don't know why. You'll get some redeye, but it's not horrible. You can clean up what's there using the included software.

The distortion test shows mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the lens. I see no signs of vignetting (dark corners) or blurry edges.

Photo quality on the PowerShot A85 was very good overall. Images were well-exposed, colorful, and detailed. Noise was slightly apparent (check out the sky) but it was nothing to be concerned about. Some goes for purple fringing: it was not a major problem in my real world test photos.

Don't just take my word for it, though. View our photo gallery and print the photos as if they were your own. Then decide if the A85's photos meet your expectations!

Movie Mode

While the A75 and A85 have a VGA movie mode, it's quite limited when compared to other cameras. You can record up to 30 seconds of 640 x 480 video (10 frames/sec), with sound. Drop the resolution down to 320 x 240 or 160 x 120 and the frame rate jumps to 15 frames/sec and the recording time increases to 3 minutes. It doesn't matter how large a memory card you have, these limits are fixed!

Please note that the VGA movie mode frame rate is actually worse on the A85 than it is on the A75. It's 15 frames/sec on the A75 but only 10 frames/sec on the A85.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming.

Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.

Here's a sample movie for you, recorded at the 640 x 480 resolution. Good quality, but choppy.


Click to play movie (6MB, 640 x 480, AVI format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

Canon always has done a great job with their playback modes, and the A85 is no exception. Image protection, slide shows, DPOF print marking, voice captions, and thumbnail view mode are all here. The camera is PictBridge-enabled for direct printing to a compatible photo printer.

So is the "zoom and scroll" feature. You can zoom into your images up to 10X, with many steps in between. Scrolling around in the enlarged area is very snappy.

By default you won't see too much information about your photos. But hit the Display button and you'll get the screen on the right, complete with a histogram.

The camera moves through photos at an average pace, taking about 1 second between each one. It goes from one high res photo to the next -- there are no placeholders.

How Does it Compare?

As it was with the A75 and A95, the PowerShot A85 is a first-rate entry-level camera. It's great for both beginners who want fully automatic operate to more experienced photographers (or those who want to become one) who like manual controls. The A85 offers very good photo quality, full manual controls, plenty of scene modes, an AF-assist lamp, and expandability. The A85's photo quality is quite good, with only a bit of noise and purple fringing. The camera has the full suite of manual controls, including white balance and focus. For those who aren't ready for those yet, the camera offers 11 scene modes. The A85's AF-assist lamp helps it focus in low light, but it's too bad that the LCD is so dark in those situations. Finally, the camera is expandable, with support for conversion lenses and an underwater case. About the only thing you can't add is an external flash.

There aren't too many downsides to this camera. While I like the VGA movie mode, the time limit and crummy frame rate aren't so hot. Rechargeable batteries in the box would've been nice. And finally, the plastic door over the CompactFlash slot leaves much to be desired.

Overall, though, this camera comes just as highly recommended as the other A-series cameras that I've tested. Which one should you buy? The A75 is fine for most people. If you plan on making prints larger than 8 x 10 inches (or like to crop your photos), then I'd consider the A85 or A95. At that point it comes down to whether you want to pay another $100 for the A95 for the extra Megapixel and rotating LCD (a valuable feature, for sure). Any way you go, you really can't lose with the A-series cameras.

What I liked:

  • Excellent value
  • Very good photo quality
  • Full manual controls
  • AF-assist lamp
  • Lots of manual controls for a cheap camera
  • Support for conversion lenses, underwater case
  • Lots of scene modes
  • Impressive software package

What I didn't care for:

  • Cheesy plastic door over CF slot
  • LCD doesn't "gain up" in low light
  • No rechargeable batteries included
  • Movie mode has low frame rate, short recording times

Some other cameras worth considering include the Fuji FinePix E500, HP Photosmart R607, Kodak EasyShare DX7440, Nikon Coolpix 4200, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W1. There may be other models that interest you -- I've only listed my top picks in the group -- so check out the Reviews & Info section for more.

And don't forget the PowerShot A75 (3.2MP) and A95 (5MP, rotating LCD), either!

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot A85 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see how the photo quality turned out? Check out our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Check out another review of the A85 over at Steve's Digicams.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.