Olympus D-540 Zoom Review

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Olympus Camedia D-540 Zoom

Steve's Conclusion

Olympus has refreshed their D-series of point-n-shoot consumer digicams for 2004 with four new models, the D-395 3-megapixel fixed focus, D-575 3-megapixel 3x optical zoom with sound, the D-580 4-megapixel 3x optical zoom with sound, and the D-540 3-megapixel 3x optical zoom, the subject of this review. All four cameras favor simplicity and ease of use over advanced features, appealing more to beginners interested in capturing family events and travel memories than to enthusiasts.

The D-540, like its siblings, is an attractive package. The stylish exterior is constructed of a durable plastic, and is small enough to carry in a pocket or purse. Unlike its siblings, the D-540 is equipped with a sliding power switch on the back of the body rather than a sliding lens barrier. When not in use, the lens retracts into the camera body, and an aperture closes to protect the front element from damage. The camera controls are well-placed on the body and the menu system is logically-organized. The D-540 is powered by either two AA cell batteries or one CR-V3 lithium battery. We've always recommended the use of NiMH rechargeable AA batteries; they supply a lot more power than alkalines and they'll save you money. There's now a money-saving alternative to disposable CR-V3 batteries; check out our list of CR-V3 rechargeable batteries. Powered by a pair of 2100maH rechargeable AA batteries, the D-540 exhausted its battery capacity after capturing 125 images, including extensive use of the LCD viewfinder for testing the menu system and composing and reviewing shots.

The 35mm-equivalent 38-114mm optical zoom lens produces sharp images. There's noticeable barrel distortion at wide-angle, slight pin cushioning at telephoto, and a bit of chromatic aberration (purple fringing) throughout the zoom range. The lens zooms smoothly, but not continuously, through its range; it has 9 distinct steps, adequate for most shot composition needs. Lens quality compares favorably with other point-n-shoot 3x zoom consumer digicams.

The D-540's shooting performance is about average for cameras in its class. It took about six seconds to capture the first image after sliding the power switch to on, and four seconds when waking the camera from its power-saving sleep mode. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter button and capturing the image, measured an impressive 1/10 second when pre-focused and 1 second including autofocus; add 1/10 second to both of those times if using the LCD viewfinder, which delays the live image. In single shot mode, the D-540 captured images at a rate of one every 5.5 seconds seconds without flash, and 6 seconds with flash. In Sequential shooting mode, the D-540 is forced into SQ2 quality mode; it captured 14 640x480 images in about 10 seconds; about 30 seconds elapsed while the camera flushed its buffer before the next shot could be taken. The D-540's shooting performance is adequate for most family shooting situations, but it's slow power-on time will cause you to miss some unposed spontaneous photo ops, and its sequential shooting mode imposes the camera's lowest quality setting. These timings were based on the camera set to SHQ (2048 x 1536) image size, auto white balance, and flash off with a 512MB Olympus xD Picture card.

The D-540's metering system produced well-exposed images in most ordinary lighting conditions. It lacks the spot metering feature of the D-575 and D-580, but exposure compensation of +/- 2 stops is available, and the effect of that adjustment is visible on the LCD viewfinder's live image. The camera's Auto White Balance setting produced realistic colors, and presets of sunny, cloudy, incandescent and fluorescent are available if needed. Colors saturation is quite rich, meeting the needs and expectations of most beginners. D-540 offers a choice of scene modes to help novices obtain good results with five common shots: Portrait, Landscape, Landscape + Portrait, Night Scene, and Self Portrait. To prevent "hot pixels" from ruining your otherwise perfect shot, Olympus equipped the D-540 with a Pixel Mapping feature accessible from the Setup menu; it maps-out bad pixels if and when they appear. The ISO sensitivity is automatic and is varied between 50 and 400 as necessary.

I was pleased with the D-540's outdoor results. Images were in sharp focus and well exposed. Advanced photographers might consider the 540's images too richly saturated, but I think the results will please most beginners. The 38-114mm (35mm equivalent) focal length of the optical zoom lens offers enough field of view in the wide-angle range for composing landscape shots, while providing enough magnification in the telephoto range to bring your subjects closer. The LCD monitor was effective for accessing the menu system and composing/reviewing your images even in bright sunlight, and the ability to examine your shots maginfied up to 4x is helpful during field review. Although it is small, you'll appreciate the zoom-coupled optical viewfinder on the brightest of days or when conserving battery power.

The indoor results were also pleasing. The limited range of the built-in flash (about 11 feet) and the field of view at wide angle will limit your flash shots to small rooms and portraits of small groups. You'll be able to include yourself in those group portraits thanks to the D-540's tripod socket and the use of its self-timer, or the self-portrait scene mode that you can use hand-held. Although the D-540 does not have a focus-assist lamp, its autofocus system works fairly well in average indoor lighting conditions at the wide angle end of the zoom range. The LCD does not automatically brighten, or "gain-up", the live image in dim lighting conditions, so you'll be happy that the D-540 is equipped with an optical viewfinder. The D-540 is very effective at squelching its flash at close range and, combined with its macro focusing capability, would be a good choice for capturing images of small objects for inclusion in online auction listings.

As with most consumer digicams, the D-540 has a movie mode; it is capable of recording at resolutions of 320x240 and 160x120 at 15fps. Because sound is not recorded, the zoom can be operated during recording. Movie length is limited only by the amount of available memory. During playback you can create an index of 9 selected frames from the movie, and save the index as a still image; it's a unique feature that will allow you to later find the clip containing a subject of interest. Playback also offers you the choice of viewing the movie continuously or frame-by-frame.

At a street price of under $200 at the time of this review (June 2004), the Olympus D-540 zoom offers a good value to families desiring a digicam combining good image quality with ease of use. Its uncomplicated automatic features produce properly exposed images, its sharp 3x optical zoom lens offers a versatile range, and its 3-megapixel imager has enough resolution for 8x10-inch prints or cropped prints of smaller size. I suggest that you get a 128MB xD memory card (capable of holding about 50 SHQ images) and a pair of CR-V3 rechargeable batteries to ensure that you don't miss that once in a lifetime photo op because your out of memory or power. If you like the features of the D-540 but don't need a zoom lens, the Olympus D-395 will save you about $50 while producing similar image quality.

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