The Canon PowerShot A540 ($300) is a midrange digital camera that offers a 6 Megapixel CCD, 4X optical zoom (instead of the usual 3X), large 2.5" LCD display, full manual controls, and a VGA movie mode. The A540, along with its 5 Megapixel sibling, the A530, replace Canon's extremely popular A510 and A520 models from last year. Both cameras use Canon's DIGIC II image processor.
There are a few differences between the A530 and A540 (besides the resolution) that are worth pointing out. The A530 has a 1.8" LCD, compared to the 2.5" screen on the A540. While the A540 can record movies at 640 x 480, 30 frames/second, the A530's frame rate is a sluggish 10 fps. The A540 has shutter and aperture priority modes, while the A530 only has a manual mode (where you set both the aperture and shutter speed). And finally, only the A540 supports conversion lenses and an underwater case.
With that out of the way we can begin our review of the PowerShot A540!
What's in the Box?
The PowerShot A540 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
- The 6.0 effective Megapixel PowerShot A540 digital camera
- 16MB Secure Digital card
- Two alkaline AA batteries
- Wrist strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions, ArcSoft PhotoStudio, and drivers
- 24 page basic manual + 137 page advanced manual (both printed)
Canon includes a 16MB Secure Digital (SD) memory card along with the A540, which holds just five photos at the highest quality setting. That means that you'll need to buy a memory card, which drives up the initial cost of the camera a bit. The PowerShot A540 uses Secure Digital memory cards, and I'd suggest a 512MB card as a good starter size. The camera takes advantage of high speed memory cards, so it's worth spending the extra bucks for one of those.
The camera uses two AA batteries for power, and Canon includes alkaline cells in the box, which will quickly end up in your trash can. So, I'd buy a four pack of NiMH rechargeables (2300 mAh or higher) plus a faster charger so you can get the most out of the A540. Here's how the camera performs against the competition in terms of battery life:
||Battery life, LCD on
|Battery used for test
|Canon PowerShot A520
||2300 mAh NiMH
|Canon PowerShot A530/A540
|Canon PowerShot A700
|Fuji FinePix F470
|Fuji FinePix F650
|HP Photosmart R817
|Kodak EasyShare C663
|Nikon Coolpix P4
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ3/LZ5
|Pentax Optio E10
||2500 mAh NiMH
|Pentax Optio M10
||2500 mAh NiMH
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W50
As you can see, the A540 turns in above average battery life numbers when using NiMH batteries. There are some other cameras that I wanted on this list, but unfortunately their manufacturer doesn't make that information available. This means you Olympus and Samsung!
If you've been around here long enough then you know that I'm a big fan of cameras that use AA batteries. Why? Two reasons. For one, NiMH rechargeables are cheaper than their lithium-ion equivalents. Second, if your rechargeables run out of juice in the field you can just drop in regular alkaline batteries to get through the day.
There's a built-in lens cover on the PowerShot A540, so there are no clumsy lens caps to worry about.
For a fairly low-priced camera the A540 has quite an accessories list. Here's a look at what's available:
||Why you want it
||Brings the wide end of the lens down by 0.7X to 24.5 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
||Boosts focal range by 1.75X to 245 mm; requires conversion len adapter
||Reduces the minimum focus distance to 4 cm at wide-angle and 14 cm at telephoto; requires conversion lens adapter
|Conversion lens adapter
||Required for conversion lenses; threaded for 52 mm accessories as well
|External slave flash
||Boosts flash range and reduces redeye; since it's a slave flash, the DC1 fires when the onboard flash does
||Take your A540 up to 40 meters underwater
||Power the camera without wasting your batteries
|Rechargeable battery kit
||Includes four 2500 mAh batteries and a charger
As a reminder, only the A540 can use the conversion lenses and underwater case -- the A530 cannot.
ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)
Canon includes several software products with the A540, the first being the usual ImageBrowser/ZoomBrowser applications that come with all of their PowerShot models. ImageBrowser is for the Mac, while ZoomBrowser is for Windows PCs.
The "Browser twins" can be used for downloading images from a camera, and then viewing, editing, and printing them. Editing functions include trimming, redeye removal, and the ability to adjust levels, color, brightness, sharpness, and the tone curve. There's also an auto adjustment feature available.
The Remote Capture feature (which I've mentioned in other reviews) does not work with the A540.
ArcSoft PhotoStudio 4.3 for Mac OS X
Also included is ArcSoft PhotoStudio (v 4.3 for Mac, v5.5 for Windows), which is kind of like a "light" version of Adobe Photoshop. It's not bad, though I miss all the bells and whistles of the newer PhotoImpression software that's available these days.
Last year Canon reworked their camera manuals a bit. There's a basic manual which will get you up and shooting quickly. For more details you can open up the advanced manual, which should answer any question you might have. A separate software manual is also included. The manuals are complete, though not the most user friendly ones that I've found.
Look and Feel
The PowerShot A540 looks a whole lot like the A510 and A520 which it replaces. It's a bit more curvy, but most everything's in the same place as before. The A540 is made mostly of plastic, though it feels pretty solid in the hand. The camera is too big to fit in smaller pockets, but it's certainly not bulky. The important controls are easy to reach, and buttons are kept to a minimum.
Now, here's a look at how the A540 compares with some of the competition in terms of size and weight:
||Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions)
|Canon PowerShot A520
||3.6 x 2.5 x 1.5 in.
||13.5 cu in.
|Canon PowerShot A530/A540
||3.6 x 2.5 x 1.7 in.
||15.3 cu in.
||170 g / 180 g
|Canon PowerShot A700
||3.7 x 2.6 x 1.7 in.
||16.4 cu in.
|Fuji FinePix A600
||3.7 x 2.4 x 1.2 in.
||10.7 cu in.
|HP Photosmart R817
||3.6 x 2.2 x 1.2 in.
||9.5 cu in.
|Kodak EasyShare C663
||3.3 x 2.5 x 1.4 in.
||11.6 cu in.
|Nikon Coolpix P4
||3.6 x 2.4 x 1.2 in.
||10.4 cu in.
||3.8 x 2.5 x 1.0 in.
||9.5 cu in.
||3.9 x 2.6 x 1.4 in.
||14.2 cu in.
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ3/LZ5
||3.9 x 2.4 x 1.8 in.
||16.9 cu in.
||183 g/186 g
|Pentax Optio E10
||3.4 x 2.4 x 1.3 in.
||10.6 cu in.
|Pentax Optio M10
||3.5 x 2.3 x 1.0 in.
||8.1 cu in.
|Samsung Digimax S600
||3.8 x 2.4 x 1.0 in.
||9.1 cu in.
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W50
||3.5 x 2.3 x 0.9 in.
||7.2 cu in.
The A540 is a bit larger, but not heavier, than the A520 which it replaces. It's one of the largest cameras in its class, but as I said before, it's not bulky.
Enough of that, let's start our tour of the camera now!
The PowerShot A540 has the same F2.6-5.5, 4X optical zoom lens as its predecessor. The focal range of the lens is 5.8 - 23.2 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 140 mm. While the lens is not threaded, you can add conversion lenses and filters by using the optional conversion lens adapter. To attach that, just press the button to the lower-left of the lens and remove the plastic ring around the lens. Then just attach the conversion lens adapter and you're set to go.
To the upper-right of the lens is the built-in flash. Like on the A510 and A520, the flash here is a "zoom flash", meaning that it adjusts the flash output according to the focal length used. So if you're at the telephoto end of the lens, the flash will focus the light on your subject, instead of spraying light in areas not in the photo. Despite that, the flash is on the weak side, with a working range of 0.45 to 3.5 m at wide-angle and 0.45 - 2.2 m at telephoto.
The A540 supports Canon's external slave flash, which I mentioned in the accessories section. That flash attaches via the tripod mount and fires when the onboard flash does.
To the left of the flash is the optical viewfinder. Next to that is the AF-assist lamp, which doubles as the self-timer lamp. The AF-assist lamp is used by the camera as a focusing aid in low light situations. To the lower-left of that is the A540's microphone.
The most notable change on the A540 compared to the A510 and A520 is in the LCD department. While the A510 and A520 had a 1.8" screen, the A540's display is 2.5 inches in size. Unfortunately, Canon skimped big time on the screen resolution (there are just 85,000 pixels) and it shows -- you can easily see the "dots" on the screen. The LCD has average outdoor visibility and excellent low light visibility, since the screen brightens automatically in those situations.
Just above the LCD is an average-sized optical viewfinder. Unfortunately it lacks a diopter correction knob, which is used to focus what you're looking at.
Jumping to the upper-right of the photo we find the camera's speaker and record/playback mode switch. Below that you'll find the exposure compensation (with the usual ±2 in 1/3EV increments range) + delete photo and Print/Share buttons.
When connected to a photo printer, just press the Print/Share button and the selected image will be printed. When you connect to a Mac or PC, you can transfer photos (in numerous ways), and even set your computer's desktop background -- right from the camera.
Below those buttons is the four-way controller, used for menu navigation, selecting manual exposure settings, and also:
- Up - Flash setting (Auto, flash on, flash off) - redeye reduction is turned on in the record menu
- Down - Focus (Auto, macro, manual)
- Center - Function / Set
In manual focus mode you'll use the left and right directions on the four-way controller to adjust the focus distance. A guide showing the distance is shown on the top of the LCD, and the center of the frame is enlarged so you can make sure that your subject is in focus.
By pressing the center button on the four-way controller, you'll open up the Function menu. This menu has the following options:
- ISO speed (Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800)
- White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, underwater, custom) - see below
- Drive (Single-shot, continuous, self-timer [2 or 10 sec, custom] - see below
- My Colors (Off, vivid, neutral, sepia, black & white, positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone, custom color) - see below
- Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments) - in manual mode you can adjust the flash strength in three steps (1/3, 2/3, full)
- Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
- Compression (see chart later in review)
- Resolution (see chart later in review)
The PowerShot A540 has a custom white balance mode, which lets you use a white or gray card for perfect color in any lighting. This will come in handy when you're shooting in unusual lighting condition, like I do in many of the test shots later in the review.
The A540 has an excellent continuous shooting mode. With a high speed memory card you can keep shooting at 2.3 frames/second until the memory card is full. There's a brief blackout between shots on the LCD, though you should still be able to follow a moving subject.
The My Colors feature has been changed a little bit since I last looked at it. Canon has combined the Photo Effects and My Colors menu, and two of the color options (Color Swap and Color Accent) have been relegated to the scene modes. The options above should be self-explanatory, though I should mention that the custom color option lets you adjust the saturation, contrast, sharpness, plus red, blue, green, and skin tone levels.
The last thing to see on the back of the A540 are two more buttons. The Display button turns the LCD on and off, and also toggles what is shown on it. The Menu button does just as it sounds.
On the top of the PowerShot A540 you'll find the power and shutter release buttons, the zoom controller, and the mode dial. The zoom controller, which wraps around the shutter release, moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.5 seconds. I counted just eight steps in the 4X zoom range.
The mode dial has quite a few options, including:
||More on this later
||Helps you line up photos for later stitching into panoramas
||Pick the situation and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, underwater, color accent, color swap. See below for more
||More commonly used scene modes
||Fully automatic, most camera settings locked up
||Automatic shooting, but with access to all menu options
|Shutter priority (Tv) mode
||You choose shutter speed, camera picks aperture. Shutter speed range is 15 - 1/2000 sec
|Aperture priority (Av) mode
||You choose aperture, camera picks appropriate shutter speed. Range is F2.6 - F8
|Full manual (M) mode
||Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself; same ranges as above
As you can see, the A540 has full manual exposure controls -- something that sets it apart from other cameras in this class.
The Color Accent and Color Swap options were moved from the My Colors mode to the Scene mode on the A540. The Color Accent feature lets you select a color to highlight, and then all the other colors are turned to black and white. Color Swap does just as it sounds -- it swaps one color for another.
On this side of the camera you'll find its I/O ports. They include A/V out, USB, and DC-in (for the optional AC adapter). The A540 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC -- the A520 did not.
There's nothing to see on the other side of the camera. The lens is at the full telephoto position here.
On the bottom of the camera you'll find the battery and memory card compartment plus a plastic tripod mount. The door covering the battery/memory compartment is of average quality. You should be able to swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.
The A540 uses two AA batteries and Secure Digital and MultiMedia memory cards. A small watch battery stores camera settings and the date and time.
Using the Canon PowerShot A540
It takes just 1.3 seconds for the A540 to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures.
No live histogram to be found
Autofocus speeds were above average. Typically it took between 0.3 and 0.5 seconds for the camera to lock focus, and not that much longer in more difficult situations. In low light, the A540 focused well thanks to its AF-assist lamp.
I did not find shutter lag to be a problem, even at the slower shutter speeds at which it can occur.
Shot-to-shot speed is excellent on the A540, with a delay of a little over a second before you can take another picture, assuming you've turned the post-shot review feature off.
You can delete a picture as it's been saved to the memory card by pressing the delete photo button.
Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the camera:
||Approx. file size
||# images on 16MB card
|# images on 512MB card (optional)
2816 x 2112
2816 x 1584
2272 x 1704
1600 x 1200
640 x 480
As you can see, a larger memory card is a wise investment if you buy the A540. I should also mention that there is a special "postcard" resolution (1600 x 1200) which is what you'll need to use if you want to print the date on your photos. You cannot do it at any other resolution.
There's no RAW or TIFF support on the PowerShot A540.
Images are named IMG_xxxx.JPG, where x = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.
Now, onto the menus!
The PowerShot A540 has a basic, easy-to-use menu system. The options in the record menu include:
- AiAF (on/off) - turns the 9-point autofocus system on and off; if turned off, camera focuses on whatever is in the center of the frame (which is faster)
- Flash adjust (Auto, manual) - turns on flash strength adjustment in aperture or shutter priority mode
- Redeye reduction (on/off)
- MF-point zoom (on/off) - enlarges the center of the frame in manual focus mode
- AF-assist beam (on/off)
- Digital zoom (on/off) - it's best to keep this turned off
- Review (Off, 2 - 10 secs, hold) - post-shot review; the hold feature will keep the image on the LCD until you press a button
- Save original (on/off) - whether an unaltered image is also saved while using the My Colors feature
- Grid lines (on/off) - puts a 3 x 3 grid on the LCD to help you compose your photos
- Date stamp (Off, date, date & time) - print the date and/or time on your photos; only works with the image size set to postcard (1600 x 1200)
The setup menu has these options:
- Mute (on/off) - turn off those annoying beep sounds!
- 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 numbering (Continuous, auto reset)
- Create folder
- Create new folder - on the memory card
- Auto create (Off, daily, weekly, monthly) - this new features will automatically create new folders on the memory card at set intervals
- Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos on the LCD
- Distance units (m/cm, ft/in) - for manual focus
- Lens retract (1 min, 0 secs) - how quickly the lens retracts when you switch from record to playback mode
- Language (way too many to list)
- Video system (NTSC, PAL)
- Print method (Auto, PictBridge)
- Reset all - back to defaults
An additional "My Camera'" menu allows you to customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your camera makes. The software included with the camera lets you use your own photos and sounds as well, if you desire. If these bother you, you can also turn them off.
Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.
The A540 took a nice shot of our usual macro test subject. The colors look good, and the subject has a "smooth" (somewhat soft) look to it. Since the A540 has a custom white balance feature, color rendition was not a problem while using my studio lamps.
The minimum distance to the subject in macro mode is 5 cm at wide-angle and 30 cm at telephoto. If you pick up the optional close-up lens those numbers drop to 4 and 14 cm, respectively.
The night shot turned out fairly well, though there's more purple fringing than I would've liked. The A540 did take in plenty of light, though, thanks to its manual shutter speed controls, and noise levels were reasonable for a 6 Megapixel camera.
Now it's time for the first of two ISO tests in this section. Using the night scene above, here's how the noise looks at higher ISO sensitivities:
ISO 100 isn't too much worse than ISO 80, and ISO 200 is still usable, especially with a little cleanup. Both the ISO 400 and 800 shots have a lot of lost detail, so you probably won't be able to do much with those. I'll show you how the noise levels look in good lighting in a bit.
There's mild-to-moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the A540's 4X zoom lens. While I see a bit of blurriness in the corners of the test chart, I did not find it to be a problem in my real world test photos.
There's a moderate amount of redeye in our flash test shot, though it's not too horrible. You should be able to clean this up in software easily. Remember, your results may vary, as everyone is different when it comes to redeye.
Okay, here's that other ISO test that I promised. The above photo was taken at each of the ISO settings, and you can see the results in the crops below. Don't forget to look at the full size images, as there are many areas of the photo worth inspecting.
The A540 has good high ISO performance for a camera in the entry-level class. The ISO 80 and 100 shots are very similar, and the ISO 200 shot could easily be printed at 8 x 10. The ISO 400 shot has noticeable grain, though it cleans up really nicely in NeatImage, so you can get a midsize print at that setting. The ISO 800 shot was very grainy when printed at 4 x 6, but after a trip through NeatImage I got an acceptable print.
Overall I was very impressed with the photos I took with the PowerShot A540. They were well-exposed with accurate color, low noise, and a nice "smooth" look. The ISO 400 cat photo in the gallery was a bit grainy when printed at 4 x 6, but after a little noise reduction (in software) it looked a lot better. While purple fringing annoyed me a bit in the night test shot, it wasn't a major problem in any of my gallery photos.
Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at the photo gallery, printing the photos if you'd like, and then decide if the A540's photo quality meets your expectations.
The A540's movie mode has been improved dramatically compared to the old A520. You can record VGA quality video (with sound) at 30 frames/second until either the memory card fills up, or the movie file size reaches 1GB (which takes just eight minutes). A high speed memory card is required for the high quality movie mode.
For longer movies you can either lower the resolution or the frame rate. Two other resolution choices are available: 320 x 240 and 160 x 120. For the 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 sizes you can choose from 30 or 15 frames/second, while the 160 x 120 size is fixed at 15 fps (with a 3 minute recording limit as well).
There's also a unique "Fast Frame Rate" mode, which lets you record up to 1 minute of 320 x 240 video at a whopping 60 frames/second. This is great for videos of fast moving subjects.
The My Colors features mentioned earlier (including Color Accent and Color Swap) can be used in movie mode as well. A movie editing feature lets you trim unwanted footage off the beginning or end of a clip.
You cannot use the zoom lens during filming (it will be locked when you start filming). The digital zoom is available, though. Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.
Here's a very exciting sample movie for you:
Click to play movie (19 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.
The A540's playback mode has all the usual features and more. You've got slideshows, image protection, image rotation, voice captions, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. A new "print menu" lets you tag photos from printing on a photo printer. The zoom and scroll (AKA playback zoom) feature lets you enlarge the picture up to 10X, and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. It's nice and fast thanks to the camera's DIGIC II processor.
The A540 also has the cool but not terribly useful "rotate the camera and the image on the LCD rotates too" that I first spotted on the PowerShot SD550.
By default, the A540 doesn't give you much info about your photos. But press the display button and you'll get plenty of details, including a histogram.
The camera moves through images quickly, with a delay of about half a second between photos.
How Does it Compare?
The Canon PowerShot A540 is a very good entry-level camera that has just a few flaws. The camera offers controls for both beginning and advanced users, it performs well, is expandable, and the photo quality is impressive for its class.
The A540 is a midsize camera that's too big for your jeans pocket, but it'll fit fine in a camera bag or in your jacket. While the body is made of plastic, it feels quite solid in the hand. The controls are well placed, and "button clutter" is kept to a minimum. The A540 features a 4X optical zoom lens, which is more than what you'll find on most cameras in this class. While the camera has a large 2.5" LCD display, the resolution is poor. On a more positive note, the screen was quite visible in low light situations. When you're ready to "add on" to the A540, Canon offers conversion lenses, an external slave flash, and an underwater case.
The camera has shooting modes for both beginners and advanced users. Those just starting out with digital will appreciate the auto and scene modes, and the fun (though not terribly useful) My Colors feature. When you're ready to learn more about manual controls, the A540 has a full suite of them, from exposure to white balance to focus. The A540 has a very good movie mode, though it reaches its 1GB file size limit in just eight minutes.
Camera performance was very good. The A540 starts up in just 1.3 seconds, it focuses fairly quickly, and shutter lag was not a problem. Low light focusing was very good, thanks to the A540's AF-assist lamp. One of the benefits of the camera's DIGIC II processor is a great continuous shooting mode: the camera can keep firing away at 2.3 frames/second until the memory card is full (as long as you're using a high speed card). Battery life is excellent on the PowerShot A540.
Photo quality was also very good. The A540 took well exposed, colorful photos with low noise and purple fringing levels. You should be able to make midsize prints up to ISO 200, and 4 x 6 prints still look good at the ISO 400 setting, especially if you clean them up a bit in something like NeatImage. Though not horrible, redeye was a bit of a problem.
I've mentioned most of the negatives in the previous paragraph. The only other complaints I have relate to the camera bundle: the memory card is too small, and there are no rechargeable batteries.
All-in-all, the PowerShot A540 is a great choice for those who want full manual controls, expandability, and great photo quality, but don't want to spend a bundle. It's not perfect, but the positives far outweigh the negatives, so the A540 gets an easy recommendation from me.
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality; ISO 200 and 400 settings are usable for small prints
- 4X optical zoom gives you a bit more telephoto power than most entry-level cameras
- Large 2.5" LCD display is usable in low light (though see issues below)
- Full manual controls, unusual for an entry-level camera
- Snappy performance
- AF-assist lamp, good low light focusing
- Very good movie and continuous shooting modes (though see issue below)
- Support for add-on lenses, external slave flash, underwater case
- Very good battery life
- USB 2.0 High Speed support
What I didn't care for:
- Poor LCD resolution
- Some redeye
- Can only record about 8 minutes of VGA video due to 1GB file size limit
- Plastic tripod mount
- No rechargeable batteries bundled; tiny memory card included
Some other cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot A530 and A700 (the little and big brothers of the A540, respectively), Fuji FinePix A600, HP Photosmart R817, Kodak EasyShare C663, Nikon Coolpix P4, Olympus FE-140 and SP-320, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ5, Pentax Optio E10 and M10, Samsung Digimax S600, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W50.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot A540 and its competitors before you buy!
See how the photos turned out in our gallery!
Want another opinion?
Read more reviews at Steve's Digicams and CNET.
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