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Canon A540 Overview

by Mike Pasini
Reviewed: 06/08/2006

The Canon A540 breaks the $300 mark with a 6.0-megapixel sensor, a 4x optical zoom lens, a broadcast quality Movie mode and full manual control. It's an impressive offering for such a low price.

One up from the low end of the camera models announced by Canon prior to the Spring 2006 PMA show, the PowerShot A540 comes in just above the A530 model. The extra money you'll spend on the Canon A540 over its lower-end sibling will likely be well-spent though. While keeping the same 4x zoom lens (35-140mm equivalent) used across much of the PowerShot A-series, the Canon A540 boosts resolution to six megapixels and increases the maximum movie frame rate to a full 30 frames/second, even at 640x480 resolution.

The Canon A540 also boosts performance in some other areas as well, sporting a huge 2.5" rear-panel LCD in addition to its real-image optical viewfinder, and adding aperture-priority and shutter-priority exposure modes, welcome options for more sophisticated users. ISO light-sensitivity ranges from 80 to 800. Other exposure modes include fully automatic and fully manual, plus a wide range of scene modes in between, and a "My Colors" menu that offers special effects such as Vivid and Neutral, Light or Dark skin, and Custom color adjustments. An Underwater scene mode even adjusts color balance and exposure for use with an optional underwater housing.

The Canon A540 also offers a range of metering modes, including evaluative, center-weighted, and even spot metering. In its continuous shooting mode, the Canon A540 is rated at 2.3 frames/second, very good speed for a modestly-priced camera.

Following a growing trend, the Canon A540 stores its images on SD memory cards, which is rapidly becoming the dominant memory card format for digital cameras. A USB 2.0 High-Speed computer connection provides for speedy downloads, fast enough that most users will find no need for a separate card reader.

At the end of the day, the Canon A540 should be a very strong-selling model in the popular PowerShot line, providing not only dead-easy use for beginners (in full-auto mode), but a complete complement of advanced exposure and metering modes for the more experienced shooter. This is a camera that offers novice photographers plenty of capability to grow into, and should make a great choice for families or couples with widely varying levels of photo expertise.

 

Canon A540 User Report

There are two ways to look at the A540: as an A700 with a 4x zoom, or as an underwater PowerShot. It isn't quite identical to the A700, but it's a near twin, except for the zoom. And at just under $300, salty tears won't dehydrate you if the optional $240 WP-DC2 underwater housing fails. More importantly, its underwater white balance and Scene mode will be welcome aids below the surface.

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The A540
Lens fully extended

If the underwater virtues of the A540 interest you, take a look at Canon's excellent Underwater Photography Guide (http://www.canon.co.jp/Imaging/uwphoto/index-e.html). In 17 chapters, it covers everything you need to know.

It's about the same size as the A700 and enjoys the same AA battery power supply, heft, and feel we so much enjoyed. The retro housing may not attract much envy, but the photos will. We particularly enjoyed how it handled macro shots of our flowers. Not any easy subject.

Highlights. Canon's A-Series digicams all use AA batteries, among which we recommend NiMH rechargeables, now available with as much as 2700 mAh (but even 1600s would do nicely). The newest A-Series digicams have reduced the battery requirement to just two, so a set of four means you'll always have a fresh set ready to go. Even with just two, however, we never ran out of gas during a shoot with the Canon A540.

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The Battery Compartment. AAs tucked next to the little clock battery drawer with the SD card slot at the top

Canon divides the A540's mode dial (as it does several other models) into three sections or "zones." The familiar Green Auto setting is its own section for those occasions where you just want to set it and forget it. Canon calls its Scene mode options the "Image Zone." The third zone is the "Creative Zone," which consists of Programmed Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and full Manual control. It was the Creative Zone that impressed us at this price level.


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The Zones. Creative, Auto and Image zones on Mode dial, conveniently recessed Power button and large Shutter button with a Zoom collar
Canon doesn't always mean Manual when it says Manual (on some cameras offering control over a few more exposure factors, like white balance, than Auto offers). But in the Canon A540's case, it means it. You can control the shutter from 15 to 1/2000 second (depending on aperture) and the aperture from f2.6 to f8.0 (depending on focal length).

I find that important for two reasons. The first is that any Auto mode occasionally disappoints. The solution to those disappointments is often taking some small aspect of control back from the camera. The A540 is happy to oblige. Secondly, though, having PASM on your camera means you can grow with it. You can read about some technique and actually try it out with this camera. You can't say that about every $350 digicam out there.

It's also becoming unusual to find an optical viewfinder on a digicam at this price level. The 2.5-inch LCD is a blessing and will be your preferred tool for composing your images, but in bright sun there's nothing like an optical viewfinder. On subcompact cameras with large LCDs, optical viewfinders are a dying breed. So we're glad to see it survive on the Canon A540.

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The Optical VF. Note how the eyepiece bezel isn't directly behind the viewfinder's lens bezel. But at least there is an optical viewfinder.

Design. Even a pair of AA batteries take up more space than one of those proprietary lithium-ion rechargeables that are hardly bigger than a CompactFlash card. But Canon has used the space intelligently, turning it into a hand grip with most of the A540's weight in the grip. That makes it easier to handhold in low light, giving it a little more resistence when you press the shutter.


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Controls
All within reach

I was able to shoot with the Canon A540 one-handed, even when I had to change EV or turn off the flash, but it's a bit easier to do that with two hands, the left supporting the camera briefly while you adjust your settings.

Still, having all the buttons and dials within easy reach of your right hand, which is always on the camera anyway, is a welcome touch.

Performance. I'm a bit more forgiving of slow shutter speeds and power up times than I should be because I'm saddled with old equipment that has slowed my reflexes significantly (at least that's the way I see it). But some digicams can still annoy me by taking a very long time to start up or to snap the shutter when I press the Shutter button.


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Wide Mode. Don't try this on your HDTV, but I do enjoy composing with Canon's Widescreen mode.

But the Canon A540 was always ready when I was. I did cycle the power an awful lot (just checking Menu options during the review, for example, which can really test my patience). But the A540 was responsive. It fired right back up quickly.

The shutter seemed quite responsive, too. I habitually half-press the shutter button anyway, so it should have been responsive. But half-pressing is something I do just to check focus and exposure options, too. It's a very good habit.


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Contrast. Pretty extreme shot, but the A5400 held it well
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Color. The A540 also made those usually difficult flower shots easy.

The A540 offers an ISO 800 setting that seems to be a new trend in digicam design. Sony has bumped the ISO ceiling up to 1000 in this year's Cyber-shots, obliterating the old 400 limit. This can be something of a mixed bag, as many have pointed out. The price of higher sensitivity is more noise. In fact, with more megapixels crammed onto the tiny sensor surface, even ISO 400 exhibits more noise than it did in the good old days when a 3-Mp sensor was hot stuff.

But the alternative, shooting at ISO 200 or below, guarantees blurry images from camera shake. So I'll take the noise. I know what to do with it: reduce it. Even Photoshop CS2's default Noise Reduction filter does a very nice job of making the noise in an A540's ISO 800 shot look no worse than that in an ISO 200 shot.


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ISO 800 Noise
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Noise Reduced. Default settings of Photoshop CS2 Noise Reduction filter did the trick.

My point is that you can't do anything about a blurry shot in your image editing software, but you can do something about noise. Sure, it would be nice to be able to shoot at ISO 800 and not have to edit the shot later -- but at least you have the shot to edit.

I was also happy to see a broadcast quality Movie mode on the Canon A540. That's 30 frames per second at 640x480-pixel resolution. Not all Movie modes are the same these days, with some digicams offering no more than 20 fps at VGA resolution. Canon, to its credit, is not taking any of the fun out of one of the biggest digicam advantages. You can zoom with sound, too (and not pick up much motor noise). Nicely done.

The only disappointment with Movie mode is that is doesn't tap into the 16:9 wide mode available in still recording modes. I really enjoy framing images in Widescreen mode. It's a fresh perspective. You will need the LCD to see the crop, though, because the Canon A540's optical viewfinder doesn't give you a clue.


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PictBridge Printing. Plug in a USB cable and the A540 becomes a print kiosk.

Finally, let me point out once again the benefit of a PictBridge-compatible digicam. The A540 needs only a USB cable to become a printing kiosk when connected to any PictBridge printer. That means you can leave a set of prints behind when you take shots at a party or just quickly get an index of your latest shoot without bothering to fire up the computer. It's a terrific convenience with the full range of output options, so you really don't give up much.

If you don't need the 6x optical zoom of the A700, the A540 will save you a few bucks while delivering the rest of the goods. Even more, it adds a couple of underwater tricks that will be appreciated if you add Canon's underwater housing to your cart (WP-DC2).

 

Basic Features

 

Special Features

 

In the Box

The Canon A540 box includes the following items:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Full Manual control (PASM)
  • Vibrant, appealing color
  • Good skin tones
  • Auto white balance handles a wide range of lighting well
  • Better than average exposure accuracy
  • Good lens, generally low distortion
  • Clean user interface
  • Wide aspect ratio image size mode
  • 640x480, 30-fps Movie mode
  • Macro mode captures a very small area
  • Good low light capability (But only in Night mode)
  • Case design fits both large and small hands well
  • Excellent print results
  • Only average speed from shot to shot
  • Average shutter response at wide angle settings
  • Contrast is a little high, tends to lose highlight and shadow detail under harsh lighting
  • Battery life is rather short with the LCD enabled
  • Unusually slow flash recycle time can be a pain
  • Some users may find the highly saturated color unnatural

 

Featuring a 6.0-megapixel CCD a 4x lens and a full range of exposure control, the PowerShot A540 is another fine addition to Canon's A-series of digital cameras. Built on the same long-tested design as many A-series predecessors, the Canon A540 offers a lot in its compact package. Its combination of automatic and manual features make it very approachable for novices, but interesting for experienced users, the net result being a camera that will satisfy a broad range of interests and provide a good path for novice users to expand their photographic horizons as their experience grows. You can even add accessory lenses and put it in a waterproof case. One of the more popular features of the A-series is their use of AA batteries, something we also like. I'd like to see it equipped with a more accurate optical viewfinder (the optical path is not straight through the front to the back), and its image noise at ISO 400 and 800 was on the high side, but that's pretty normal. As with other legendary Canons, the A540 is a camera that will meet the needs of the average consumer very well. It's an easy Dave's Pick.