Canon Powershot A540 Review
New to Canon's already very popular PowerShot line, the A540 is the 2006 upgrade of the A520 from last year, and incorporates many of the same features like its stylish and durable body, 4x optical zoom lens, etc. However, the A540 "ups the ante" with 6-megapixels of resolution, a larger more resolute 2.5-inch LCD display, as well as a high-quality VGA size movie mode with a selectable frame rate of 30 or 15fps.
The A540 is the big brother to the 5-megapixel A530, which is almost identical other than the lesser resolution, smaller 1.8-inch LCD screen, fixed frame rate movie mode, and the exclusion of several exposure modes (Shutter priority, Aperture priority and Underwater.) These models feature the same hybrid metal/polycarbonate body that we saw on last year's "A" series, which is both durable and stylish. Overall, I found their ergonomics to be excellent. They are small enough to be tucked away in almost any size pocket, but are large enough to still offer a comfortable feel in your hands. The enlarged hand grip makes one handed shooting a snap! The menus are very easy to navigate and allow for quick changes to camera settings; especially the FUNCtion menu. As usual, controls are well placed and functional, all within the reach of either your thumb or index finger.
One feature that is unique over the typical consumer point-n-shoot, is the Canon 4x optical zoom. This lens offers a bit more versatility in composing your shots over your standard 3x lens. While 1x doesn't seem like much, you'll notice that you'll be able to bring your distant subjects up closer and better fill the frame when shooting portraits. Its 35mm- equivalent zoom range is approx. 35-140mm, and favors the telephoto end. We found it provides adequate field of view for most interior or landscape shots, but you'll sometimes find yourself pressed against the wall in small rooms. The lens produced sharp results throughout its zoom range, with average barrel distortion at full wide angle but virtually no pincushioning at the telephoto end. Chromatic aberrations (purple fringing around brightly lit subjects) wasn't much of an issue, with only a bit of purple fringing present in high contrast areas. When you need a bit more versatile zoom range, you can attach the optional LA-DC52F Conversion Lens Adapter and then use either the Canon WC-DC52C 0.7x Wide Converter lens, TC-DC52A 1.75x Tele-converter lens or the 250D 52mm Close-up Lens (these lenses are not compatible with the A530.)
Shooting performance was awesome for a point-n-shoot in this class. From power up to first image was captured measured just 1.6 seconds, and waking the camera from sleep mode to image capture took only 1 second. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter button and capturing an image, was less than 1/10 of a second when pre-focused, and only 2/10 of a second including autofocus. When using single drive mode and shooting a sequence of images, the shot to shot delay averaged approx. 1.5 seconds without the flash, but increases dramatically to between 4 - 6 seconds when using the flash, depending on subject distance and battery life.
The A540 also offers a continuous (burst) mode, that Canon claims can capture images at a rate of 2.3fps. I found it was a bit more impressive than their claim, capturing 10 images in 3.5 seconds flat; a frame rate of 2.8 fps. This means you will have no problems when taking burst sequences at your kid's sporting events. And thanks to the inclusion of an optical viewfinder, you won't have to deal with the problem of the LCD briefly displaying the last image captured, which makes it difficult to follow moving subjects. all tests were done using a Lexar High-Speed (32x) 512MB SD card, Large/SuperFine image quality, Program AE mode, review off, flash off, and all other settings at default, unless noted otherwise. Times may vary depending on camera settings, lighting conditions, media, etc.
When it comes to image quality, Canon's models are almost always at the top. And, the A540 is no exception. We were very pleased with its Large SuperFine 6-megapixel images. Our sample images were sharp, well exposed, and showed accurate color balance. As you can see from our kayak shots, the exposure system of this model does an excellent job of capturing sky detail. Imager noise is an issue we touch with just about every model we test, and the A540 showed very little, if any, when using ISO 80 and 100. As the ISO sensitivity is increased, so does the noise; a common problem with almost all consumer cameras. Unlike the usual cut off at ISO 400, the A540 (and 530) allow you to use an ISO speed as high as 800. This will allow the use of higher shutter speeds in marginal lighting conditions, which helps reduce the effects of camera shake (blurring.) While noise levels are very noticeable at ISO 400 and 800, I still feel the usefulness of being able to capture images when you just can't use the flash is much more important. Sure you don't want to make large prints with these images, but your typical 4x6's will still be usable.
While shooting indoors, you'll notice that the flash doesn't quite have the power to illuminate large open rooms. Canon rates a flash range up to 11.5 feet when using ISO auto and at full wide angle. This Light-guide zoom flash, actually changes the angle of the flash (internally) as the focal length changes, which is not only pretty cool, but also helps reduce effects like red-eye. I found that it does well when shooting close up portraits from about 4 or 5 feet away, or when shooting small group shots in mid sized rooms. This is a common issue with compact models, the manufacter wants to conserve battery life, and what is one of the biggest drains on the batteries other than the LCD? The Flash. So it is a compromise, you can stick it in your pocket, but you'll sacrifice a good flash unit; luckily, the A540 is compatible with the optional High-Power Flash HF-DC1, which can deliver proper illumination up to approximately 30 feet. I was pleased, however, with our indoor portraits; skin tones were very natural and flash exposure was good when within its limits.
The A540 also features a high-quality movie mode with audio. There are several modes to choose from (Standard, Compact (160x120), Fast Frame rate, Color Accent and Color swap), as well as resolutions of 640x480 or 320x240. The frame rate when using standard mode is selectable between 30 and 15fps. I was pleased with our movie samples. The A540's ability to use higher than normal ISO speeds, allows you to capture better quality movies in marginal lighting conditions; although compression artifacts are a bit more noticeable. You can see by taking a look at our Low-Ambient light example on the samples page.
Battery life was surprising when you consider that these models use only two AA-type cells. Canon claims that AA alkaline batteries will allow you to capture approx. 90 shots (LCD on), 240 shots (LCD off), and 180 minutes of continuous playback time. We here at Steve's highly recommend the use of NiMH cells, and according to Canon, they will allow you to shoot approx. 360 shots (LCD on), 800 shots (LCD off), and 300 minutes of continuous playback time (the mAh rating of these cells was not specified.) Using a single set of 2500 mAh cells, I was able to capture over 120 shots and several movie clips as well as conduct the rest of our other tests, and the batteries still have some juice left.
Bottom line - The PowerShot A540 is yet another awesome digital model from Canon. They continue to offer great image quality, blazing fast performance, and loads of user friendly exposure modes, all at an affordable price. Let us not forget this model has some really cool features like a huge 2.5-inch LCD screen that works great whether you're indoors or out. A Light-guided zoom flash that changes its angle as the focal length increases, and a durable metal/polycarbonate body that will ensure that it will stand the test of time. The only annoyence which I found was the flash recharge time and the fact that the LCD goes blank while the flash is charging. With an MSRP of only $299, we feel it offers an outstanding value and will make any family, business, or tourist user very happy, whether you're just entering the digital age or upgrading to a newer model. Don't need 6-megapixels of resolution, but still love many of the features of this model? Be sure to check out our review of its 5-megapixel little brother the PowerShot A530, which can be had for about $70 less.
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