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** Introduction **
For many years Canon's A series of budget compacts were seen, generally with some justification, as among the best such digital cameras to buy for photographers who were more interested in function than in style. They might not have been terribly elegant, but they provided a good range of features at a fair price and produced consistently pleasing results. The five-megapixel A530 from 2006 is a good example of the breed: although with slightly fewer features than some of its A-series stablemates it is a capable machine with which anybody should be able to take nice-looking photos.
** Looks and handling **
The A530 comes from what you might call Canon's "Chunky Period" - it's a fairly bulky thing and unlikely to win any design awards. (This is one camera that most certainly is *not* "sleek"!) However, the removal of the need to make the unit as slim as possible means that things are less squashed up, and personally I find this more comfortable. Comparing it to, say, a Canon Ixus ultra-compact it's certainly less elegant and less easily slipped into a trouser pocket, but in use handling is rather easier.
This is not a light digicam either, though it's nowhere near as substantial as a bridge camera like the S1/2/3/5 series. Many people, including me, like a little bit of heft in their cameras, finding it reassuring, and it certainly makes it less of a pain to hold still. For best results, though, you do need to hold it in two hands: it is possible, and quite easy thanks to the very substantial grip, to shoot one-handed, but you're probably going to be gambling a bit with whether the resulting picture comes out completely straight.
** Optics and screen **
Although the A-series was a budget range, "budget" for Canon didn't necessarily mean the same as it would have done for certain other manufacturers, and the lens on the A530 is by no means poor. Its basic spec is fairly unexciting: an averagely fast (f/2.6 to f/5.5) 4x optical zoom with an equivalent range of 35 to 140 mm. So, a little short at the wide end, but the slight extra telephoto over a basic 3x zoom can come in useful from time to time. The zoom is controlled in traditional Canon style by means of a collar around the shutter button, which once you're used to it is very easy to use.
On the other hand, the LCD screen is a little disappointing for this manufacturer. Canon did lag somewhat behind the competition at this point, and although the 1.8-inch LCD is fairly easy to see except in bright sunshine and it's fine for reading Canon's usual clear menu icons, the mediocre 77,000-pixel screen does result in some graininess, which is especially obvious if shooting in dim conditions. It doesn't lag much, at least. There is an optical viewfinder, incidentally, but it's not very good: little more than a small tunnel, and not terribly accurate in terms of coverage.
** Features and settings **
This isn't the A-series camera to go for if you're attracted by the manual override options offered by some of the other units in the range: aperture-priority, shutter-priority and full manual mode are all missing. For those, you need to look at the slightly newer A540. However, that doesn't mean that the A530 lacks in features: you still get manual exposure (though it's fiddly to use), a full range of exposure compensation and white balance options, three types of metering and even the option to control flash power. This last can be handy in borderline dark conditions where a full-power flash would be just too much.
Among the less serious (but perhaps more fun!) options this camera gives you are an adjustable self-timer (set the delay you want) and a variety of colour controls. These include the usual black & white and sepia tones, but also allow you to brighten or darken skin tones, give a slide-like "positive film" effect (not that I'm altogether convinced by that one) and use the Custom Color [sic] setting in order to tweak the saturations of individual shades. It's a shame that this is slightly fiddly to use, because it can give fun results.
Something the A-series cameras were traditionally somewhat laggard about was movie mode, and the A530 sadly doesn't excite here. This was one of the earlier Canons to be able to record in VGA (640 x 480) resolution... but at that setting you can only shoot at a pathetic 10 fps. Even dropping down to 320 x 240 resolution only allows the frame rate to increase to 20 fps. Many other cameras even in 2006 could do better than that, and when you also consider that one of those is the A540, you probably won't be getting the A530 if movies are important to you.
** Consumables **
As with most of its Canon contemporaries, the A530 takes two standard AA batteries. It goes without saying (or should do!) that I *strongly* recommend the use of NiMH rechargeables of a high capacity (2500 mAh or so), which though expensive to buy will pay for themselves quite quickly. Battery life is reasonable, though I would always want to have a spare set around. If you have a camera bag, leave a couple of Duracells in there: although life isn't great, they don't leak away their power as rechargeables do and so are useful for emergencies.
The backup battery that keeps things like the clock working while you change the AAs is in a small pull-out drawer by the main battery compartment. This is a CR1220 button cell, and shouldn't be hard to find for a couple of pounds. Memory is provided by ordinary SD cards - though take care not to use SDHC, as the A530 is not compatible with that format. Standard SD's maximum capacity of 2 GB is more than sufficient for a camera like this in any case. I haven't had any trouble using the camera's conventional spring-loaded card slot.
** Photo quality **
The A530 allows you to set ISO from 80 to 800, a fairly typical range. At the lower end of the scale images are nice and clean - not to the extent that you'd get from a good DSLR, but compare the prices and you'll appreciate why! At 100% on a monitor screen, ISO 200 looks just a little bit fuzzy, but remember that this is much less visible when printing out photos at commonly used sizes: certainly for standard 6 x 4-ish prints you're unlikely even to notice. ISO 400 is borderline, and ISO 800 really is for emergencies only.
I've generally found that A-series cameras have quite saturated, punchy colours, and the A530 is no exception. Some reviewers consider that it goes too far, but remember that many of them live in places like south California where very bright sunshine is an everyday occurrence. Here in cloudy old Britain, a little extra colour can often help to combat our all too frequent flat light conditions. You can always use the "Neutral" option to tone down the colours if you think things are getting over the top. Talking of light, in bright conditions try dialling down exposure compensation by one or two clicks to prevent washed out light areas.
Sharpness is okay, if not startling, and plenty of detail is preserved. In general over-sharpening is a bad thing, so I tend to the view that allowing users to do it themselves if they want to is a good idea. For those of you who use the free image editor GIMP, as a quick fix try running your photos through its "Sharpen" filter with a setting of 30; this brings out a good deal of detail without making foliage etc seem overly fussy. On the whole, then, the A530 puts in a good display, and is more than good enough for everyday snapshot use.
** Buying and verdict **
Because of their consistent quality (and, let's face it, a little bit of brand snobbery) Canon digicams tend to retain their value on the second-hand market better than many other makes. An A530 in decent condition without any accessories is likely to set you back somewhere in the £25-30 region on eBay. Certainly you can get higher-resolution cameras for that, but they won't all produce results as good as the Canon's. Personally I'd be inclined to go for the A540, but if you don't need the extra manual controls and better movie mode the A530 is not a bad choice by any means.