Samsung EX1 / TL500
Challenging the Big Boys
Every now and then a camera comes along that simply feels right from the moment that you pick it up. It's a curious combination of design attributes, build materials and ergonomics that makes this so. The Samsung EX1 (TL500 in some markets) is one such camera. Given how new to camera making Samsung is, it's a bit surprising that they got so much right. But maybe not.
Have you ever thought about how you can get into almost any car, anywhere on the planet, and within a moment or two figure out where all of the important controls are, and drive off safely? No – maybe not the GPS and audio system, and in some cases not the AC, but at least the steering wheel, gas peddle, turn signals and such are in the places that you expect them to be. This is a form of voluntary standardization that makes our world work a bit more smoothly than it otherwise might.
Well, the EX1 fits that paradigm. If you have any experience with digital cameras over the past decade you'll find the EX1 to be almost immediately accessible. In fact it was a couple of days until I even bothered to read the manual to figure out a few of the finer points.
As you can probably gather, I am impressed with the EX1, and below will discuss some of the things that I like about the camera, and of course a few things that I don't. But, unlike with most pocket-sized cameras these days, there's more to like here than there is to dislike.
Most of the major Asian camera makers have teamed up with one of the big name German lens makers – Sony with Zeiss, Panasonic with Leica, and Samsung with Schneider-Kreuznach.
If you are not a large format or medium format photographer the name Schneider may not be as familiar to you as Zeiss or Leica, but if you are you need not be told that they are one of the world's oldest and finest lens designers and manufacturers. Indeed I know quite a few ultra-demanding photographers who think that Schneider glass is frequently superior to Zeiss (and that's saying a lot). Back in the days that I shot with a Rollei 6008 I had several Schneider lenses and found them to be exemplary.
Which is a long way round of telling you that the 5.2mm – 15.6mm f/1.8 – f/2.4 Schneider Varioplan fitted to the EX-1 is one very fine lens. (24mm – 72mm equivalent)
First of all, it's fast. An aperture of f/1.8 at the wide end is among the fastest found in this class of camera, and unusually for anything except a 35mm SLR. While the range is only 3X, having a still reasonable f/2.4 at the long end is also very welcome.
Because small sensor cameras run into the diffraction wall quite quickly (probably at around f/5.6) with the 1/1.7" sensor in this camera having a wide aperture not only contributes to being able to shoot at lower ISOs, but also means that overall optical goodness can be increased.
And this is in fact the case. Though I did no technical lens tests, all of the shots that I've done show a high degree of freedom from the usual culprits such as CA and vignetting, and resolution is very good indeed.
At The Petting Zoo – Toronto, June, 2010
Samsung EX-1 @ ISO 100
There's little in the way of frippery or gizmos on the EX1. It's a straightforward camera intended to make photographs, and if you want gadgetry you'll have to look elsewhere.
On thing that this camera has that smells a bit of of marketing influence rather than needed practicality is what Samsung calls Dual IS, where something described as digital stabilization is added to the fine optical IS that the camera already has. This is a "mode" on the main dial, along with P.A.S.M.
Samsung doesn't say much in the user manual or even their marketing material about what this is and how it works. A bit of poking around the web though, and some experimentation of my own, shows that all this mode does is boost the ISO to 800 along with regular stabilization. This lets the camera use a higher shutter speed automatically.
My sense is I won't be using this much. I prefer to shoot in either A or S, depending on the situation, and I can set ISO myself, thanks very much. I really wish that Samsung would simply explain what the mode is and let users decide for themselves if its worthwhile. This is, after all, a camera designed for the more sophisticated user. Describing what Dual IS does as adding digital stabilization is disingenuous at best, and downright untruthful at worst.
Switching Between JPG and Raw
Switching between shooting JPGs only and either just raw or JPG+ raw is easily accomplished via the camera's menu screens. But, one of the limitations of the EX1 is that it can't shoot raws at high (relatively speaking) frame rates. When the cameras' top dial is set from single shot to multiple shot the camera automatically switches form recording raws to JPGs only.
While this is a disappointment it also provides a quick and convenient means of changing between shooting raws and JPGs. Just set the camera to shoot raws, or raws+JPGs, and then when you want to shoot JPGs only simply turn the top dial to high speed shooting. A single press of the shutter release will still just take a single frame, just as if in single frame mode.
Sounds a bit confusing, I know, but actually quite simple in operation, and something that I use all of the time.
Lightroom 3 Tutorial Video Shoot.
Chris Sanderson and Jeff Schewe. June, 2010
In JPG mode the EX-1 can shoot at a rate of something over 1.5 frame per second, and can do so continuously, at least with a Class 6 of faster card. Raw shooting is definitely on the slow side. It's heard to measure because the continuous shooting mode is turned off when shooting raw, and otherwise it depends on when you press the shutter next during the "processing" cycle.
In other words, don't shoot raw thinking that you can do more than one shot every few seconds. Disappointing, but not the end of the world when working slowly and carefully.
I was more than pleased with the image quality from the EX-1. Out of camera JPGs were a notch above those from many competitive cameras, which are typically oversaturated and almost always oversharpened.
The EX-1's JPGs were usually right on the money, and even auto-white-balance was in the ballpark most of the time. I was particularly impressed with the appropriate level of sharpening applied.
While I did shoot some JPGs, I shot mostly using raw and processed the files in an "alpha" version of a major raw development program. I would imagine that all of the major software makers will have EX-1 support before too long, and as noted below, since Samsung's version of Silkypix is its usual hard-to-use self, and Windows only, this can't come soon enough for me.
At lower ISO's I was impressed with the camera's dynamic range. The shot higher up the page titled At The Petting Zoo shows how the camera can handle from the brightest sun to open shade. In fact I would normally darken the shadow areas in a shot like this for esthetic reasons, but wanted to show what the camera can do without alteration.
Samsung EX-1. ISO 800. 1/60 sec f/2.3 @ 12mm
I was also impressed with the EX-1's higher ISO capability. The shot of my friend Jeff Schewe, above, was taken in a local restaurant while having lunch, with just window light behind him. I've vignetted it to remove distractions, but otherwise it's a fairly straightforward shot.
Look at the 100% crop below. Note that this was taken at ISO 800. Pretty remarkable performance for a 1/1.7" sensor.
Just to be clear though – this is still a small sensor camera, and my favorable comments are relative to this. No one should expect a magic bullet. There is still noticeable "plasticity" to some images that are a give-away that they weren't made with something larger. But, on the whole, for casual use by even a critical viewer, the EX-1 produces more than acceptable image quality in most situations in which it will find itself.
CCD & Video
When the specs on the EX1 were first announced a number of people were disconcerted to discover that the video mode was just VGA, not any flavour of HD. That Samsung announced a number of less expensive pocket cameras at the same time that offer 1920X1080i/30 HD video was more than a little puzzling.
The reason why this is the case became clear when I saw that the EX1 has a CCD sensor, not CMOS. At this time CCD simply can't produce the high data transfer rates needed for full HD video. In discussion with some designers at major camera companies I'm told that this isn't really a hard limitation, but has more to do with issues of power consumption and especially heat.
So, why would Samsung choose a CCD sensor for the EX1? The only reasonable answer is – image quality. Clearly, with the EX1 being their first foray into the high-end pocket camera marketplace, intended for serious and knowledgeable photographers, and with strong competitors like the Canon G11 and Panasonic LX3 – both sporting comparable sized and density CCDs, Samsung wanted to ensure that the EX1 would not only be competitive, but, if possible, superior to these two. This would have to apply to IQ as well as features.
Thus, we have a camera that pays lip service to video, but doesn't really provide anything that anyone would use seriously. This is a shame, because two years ago Panasonic showed with the LX3 that 1280X720/P30 was possible with a small sensor CCD, and Samsung should have given us no less.
No one is necessarily looking for great video IQ from a pocket stills camera, but since there are inexpensive little guys out there like the Sony HX5 (reviewed here recently) that produce 1080/30i, the EX-1 disappoints when it comes to video.
The EX1 when it first shipped in mid-May, 2010, had a bug. The bug prevents the camera for seeing more than 4GB on a larger SD card. If you insert an 8Gb or 16GB card and the camera shows under 100 raw frames, then you need to update the firmware.
Be sure that your camera's battery is fully charged. Simply unzip the download file and copy the files contained within it to the root directory of an SD card, which you then insert into the camera. Turn the camera on and you will see a request to update. Press the shutter and within a few minutes the update will be complete.
The camera comes with a CD containing two programs and a PDF manual. There is no printed manual – only a brief intro pamphlet. The first piece of software is Samsung Master (Windows only), that is intended to display and do basic editing to JPG files. It's OK, but nothing special.
Samsung Raw Converter 3 is again Windows only. Based on Silkypix, which several manufacturers OEM, its a competent but not terribly easy to use program. Programs like Lightroom and Camera Raw from Adobe, Aperture from Apple, and DxO Optics Pro simply put it to shame. Also, whereas the manual says that there is a Mac version available (and there is one for the new NX10 camera), as of early June, 2010, a search of Samsung's worldwide sites fails to turn one up.
Here's my not-so-humble suggestion to Samsung. Drop the whole proprietary raw file thing. Adopt the DNG open standard and let the big boys of the software world do what they do best, and stick to what you do best – building cameras. The tower of babble that is the raw software world has got to stop. There are now more than 250 raw formats, and every new camera from almost every manufacturer brings us another. Please end the madness!
There's a lot to like about the Samsung EX-1. Build quality is exemplary – a notch above what one usually finds in this price point. The lens is as good as it gets for a camera in the price range, and indeed better than many. Ergonomics and other handling issues are par for the course, and again, better than most.
Image quality is on a par with other cameras of this type, and the EX-1 in no way suffers by comparison with competing models from Canon or Panasonic. It's only when it comes to its primitive video capability that the EX-1 owner is let down. If video isn't important to you then not to sweat, if it is you'll likely want to look elsewhere.
Fast lens, great lens, solid build, decent IQ, smooth handling – what more can one want from a pocket camera in this price range. Highly recommended.