Canon PowerShot A540
At a Glance
The $280 (as of 6/15/06) PowerShot A540 offers a lot of features for those who want to manually set controls such as shutter speed for full creative control. It's one of the few cameras in this class that offers full manual control as well as the usual fully automatic modes. There's also a good selection of scene modes: 13 in all, including three that are very easily accessed on the mode dial (you access the rest through the on-screen menu by setting the mode dial to SCN).
The camera body is pretty small (at just over 3.5 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall), but it is somewhat thicke: At 1.7 inches deep, it's a bit bulky to fit comfortably into most pockets. The 4X zoom lens (which is longer than the 3X lenses we typically see on point-and-shoot cameras) telescopes out of the front of the body. The camera feels comfortable in the hand, and you can change the shooting mode one-handed because the mode dial falls under the thumb. The manual control is also well executed: You can set the shutter speed and aperture with one hand.
The image quality of the 6-megapixel images is about average (though the A540's scores match those from many more-expensive models): Colors were accurate (though they lacked the vividness of the Olympus FE-120) and the camera accurately judged exposure (it also offers auto exposure bracketing). The images were a little soft, however: Some fine details were lost in the blurriness, and the edges of objects sometimes lacked definition. And like a growing number of point-and-shoots offering higher ISO settings than past models, the A540 is lets you can crank up the ISO setting to 800; previous models peaked at ISO 400. However, the A540's images got rather noisy; at anything above ISO 200, the noise pattern was noticeable and distracting, and the colors become flat and dull.
One interesting option is the wide-screen mode: This shoots an image with a resolution of 2816 by 1584 pixels that has a 1.8-to-1 aspect ratio that is close to the typical HDTV wide-screen image. The camera itself can't output an HDTV image, though: the only output is composite video.
The A540's battery life of 191 shots, from the two disposable AA batteries, was a little on the low side. You can also use optional AA NiMH rechargeable batteries, but these cannot be recharged inside the camera. Canon sells a kit with four rechargeable batteries and a charger for $60--well worth the investment. Canon also offers a range of accessories, including wide-angle and telephoto lenses that attach around the existing lens (a plastic ring around the lens base unscrews to allow each to attach).