Review – Samsung TL500/EX1
by Justin Serpico
Note: The camera tested in this review was purchased by the author at full price through traditional means. He is not affiliated with Samsung in any way. His views on the camera are his own and do not necessarily coincide with those of Enticing the Light.
The compact camera segment is one that has left me without hope of a decent camera for a long time. Since 2003 I’ve had in my arsenal the gamut of digital compacts ranging from fast super zooms to the highly portable to the control freak Canon G series. Despite my disdain of compact cameras, as an active person who prefers to travel as light as possible, I often do have a need for a quality DSLR alternative, or simply as a backup camera to a minimalist SLR kit. Beyond that, my wife, a non photographer, also needs a camera that is purseable and suitable for casual situations; sometimes a DSLR just isn’t appropriate.
In my opinion, digital compacts peaked at around 4MP. However, overall image quality of digital cameras and sensors has improved quite a bit since the 4MP compact era of the early to mid 2000s. Dynamic range, color depth and accuracy, and many other factors that contribute to overall IQ have been lost to the megapixel race until now. Sensors have remained small while pixel density has increased. The end result were compacts that were useless above base ISO.
When the PEN and other micro 4/3s cameras arrived, followed by a wave of ILCs (Interchageable Lens Cameras) and EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) cameras, I thought my search for a high IQ digital compact was over. Finally SLR quality without the size of an SLR. It was a match made in heaven until I realized a big problem. Despite the freakishly small size of the ILC and EVIL bodies, the larger sensor necessitated larger lenses. The only option to make these cameras pocketable would be a pancake prime. While this is acceptable in some instances, it isn’t ideal for general purpose and casual photography. Certainly it isn’t as versatile as a compact with a fast zoom. It is this limitation that will hopefully assure that the high end digital compact segment will continue to exist even as ILCs and EVILs push the boundaries of pocketability.
The Samsung TL500 (its name in the USA, elsewhere in the World it’s known as the EX1), unlike the Panasonic LX3 and LX5, or Canon G11, G12, S90 and S95, is the first digital compact that made it through the harsh scrutiny of post impulse interest. But will it survive the real world torture test of unrealistic expectations?
Interspersed throughout the article are sample photos taken with the camera. Click on them to see larger versions and the settings they were taken with.
What’s in the Box
Right off the bat Samsung did something interesting when it decided for some unknown reasons that photographers don’t appreciate having an external charger that doesn’t require the USB port to be used for charging. I haven’t used the USB port on my cameras in years, so when I opened the box and found out that I had only one way to charge the battery I immediately went to Ebay and bought a “wall wart” style charger and 2 spare batteries. Total cost was only $12, and it had two spare batteries. Samsung saved perhaps $1-2 by not including the standalone charger and I hate when companies do head scratching things like this.
Of course you are thinking two things. First, why is the USB charge option so bad? Secondly, why trust an eBay battery in your new camera. I won’t go into the second, but I will cover the first issue. Because of the lack of external charger, even if you were to buy OEM Samsung batteries, you have limited options for getting them charged with the boxed items. If traveling you could charge all 3 batteries up before you leave, but once you arrive it will be hard to recharge all of them without constant TLC during the evenings. You also cannot use the camera while you charge it. Thus, if on a trip, your charger can’t be left in a hotel room with the 3rd battery assuring you always have a fresh spare.
There is an upside to Samsung’s USB charge option, for just the extra bulk of a cable you have two chargers with you at all times if you go the “wall wart” route.
Also in the box is a neck strap, lens cap with keeper lanyard, and software for converting RAW files and managing images and videos, including basic video editing.
The TL500 has a very small battery, so small in fact that it looks out of place with such a relatively large camera, but it does have the same mAh ratings as the batteries in similar cameras in its class. Considering the large 3in AMOLED screen, I am somewhat impressed with the battery’s performance. However, where I noticed the camera takes a drop is when using the pop-up flash. Once activated the battery seems to drop down from 3 to 2 bars pretty quickly. So we can assume that the battery is just barely adequate for this type of camera. Overall, the battery is plenty for a day or weekend of conservative shooting, about 200-300 shots.
Based on other reviews around the web I was actually expecting better build. Am I saying the TL500 is poorly built? Absolutely not. The TL500 is among the very best digital compacts in terms of build, but it’s probably not as well built as the Panasonic FX01, the most modern digital compact I have on hand to compare it to, which was all metal aside from the plastic battery door. It’s also not quite on par with the Ricoh GX and GR series that I’ve held, although again, very close. Of course it cost hundreds less than the Ricoh alternatives, yet offers comparable IQ and lens. You’ll probably find the build of the TL500 is impressive enough to wonder if I reviewed a different camera when you hold it. The bottom line is, the TL500 is not going to stand up to being used to hammer pitons on a big wall route in Yosemite should you drop all your climbing team’s hammers down a 2000ft face. Other than that small caveat, it will probably last longer than you want it too, or to put it another way, you’ll have to convince your significant other you need a new camera for reasons other than the build on the TL500.
The TL500 comes with a very sweet lens, in my opinion, one of the true highlights and selling points of this camera. It’s a Schneider Kreuznach 24-72mm-equiv. f/1.8-2.4, which at the time of its release was both faster and longer than the flagship of this class, the Panasonic LX3. Today it’s still faster than the LX5, but it gives a little up on the long end of the range. I think unlike the slightly too short LX3 range, the TL500 is sort of at a sweet spot. Sure a 3.5-4x range would be even more wonderful, but the TL500 straddles the very fine line of speed and range vs. overall optical quality. The lens is in no way perfect, it has flaws which are easily corrected for. For instance the color fringing in very high contrast scenes—the type of scenes good photographs are rarely taken in—is entirely correctable in either the included SilkyPix, in camera via the JPEG engine that does a wonderful job, or in your RAW converter of choice. The lens, like all lenses of this class, suffers from distortion at the wide end when not corrected. The JPEG engine also corrects this admirably, yielding virtually distortion free images. If you shoot RAW Silkypix will automatically fix the RAW files, but Lightroom will require you to either create or locate correction profiles. I did not find SilkyPix did particularly well on objectionable fringing when compared to the in camera JPEG Fine files. Lightroom may do a better job, or it could just be this viewer’s unfamiliarity with SilkyPix software that was the source of failure.
For those wondering how good a lens that needs corrections can be, I should stress that the need for correction in this lens isn’t a flaw of design. Today most digital compacts with very fast or very long zoom ranges typically correct lens issues in-camera or via the RAW converter. Since most digital compacts do not shoot RAW most photographers never know about these issues. However, since the lens correction isn’t written into the RAW file, such as the way Pentax corrects it, only the included RAW software corrects for it automatically. Everyone else will notice the distortion till it’s corrected via custom profiles. Again, this doesn’t affect JPEGs, which the camera corrects automatically.
The TL500 offers optical image stabilization, which seems to work quite well. I won’t venture to guess how many stops you get from it, but these days almost all cameras give 2-3 stops on average. A recent firmware update seems to have further enhanced the TL500 OIS (Optical Image Stabilization).
Samsung did a great job with this lens via Schneider; it’s fast, its sharp, it lacks uncorrectable flaws, and it maximized the utility of the sensor by allowing you to shoot at very wide apertures and keep the ISO in the camera’s sweet spot. If this lens isn’t the best in class, it’s pretty close!
The TL500 focuses fast and accurately. Four main modes are available: single point, multipoint, user select and tracking mode. There are also macro and manual focus settings. The TL500 has a menu selectable focus assist lamp, which like all focus assist lamps helps significantly in low light focus acquisition at closer ranges, such as indoor settings. One thing noticed early on while using this camera is that the macro mode isn’t as close focusing as that on most other digital compacts. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t get the camera to focus on one such macro scene, ultimately I used the other digital compact we were carrying to get the macro shot of a spider. The inability to focus befuddled me until I checked the focus range in the PDF manual on my phone. Sure enough the cameras macro focusing range is quite long and the result is not nearly the magnification that digital compacts are typically known for. In lens design there are always tradeoffs and this could explain why this lens offers slightly better sharpness than the competition at normal focus range.
Size, Portability, and General Handling
The TL500 is anything but truly pocketable. It’s not the size that keeps it out of a pocket, rather its hefty weight, which many consider a sign of rugged build. In the old days heft and build quality were considered synonymous and being old school I completely agree in most cases. However, the weight of the camera will cause you to wear through pockets a lot faster, and it will also annoy you as it bounces around inside your aptly sized cargo pockets on pants or shorts. If you don’t mind it, it does fit quite well into a pair of cargo pockets. For me, I found the included neck strap to be just fine. It is light enough I don’t notice it around the neck or tossed over one shoulder, and with the included strap the TL500 seems to stay put. Some might even remove the neck strap and opt for a wrist lanyard for more portability, or at least the appearance of portability!
As a DSLR replacement or backup when going light it fits the bill; it won’t wear down the average person over a day of shooting, but it’s definitely at the big end of compact.
For those looking to sneak this camera into their skinny jeans, well, it isn’t going to happen. It’s just bulky enough that it won’t comfortably fit into a typical front pocket of casual pants. It will fit nicely into a purse though.
One slightly annoying build aspect is the lens cap. It’s not the shutter type found on many compacts, but rather the SLR style pinch fit. Some people might actually prefer this. In some instances I do. If you remember to take the cap off every time before turning on the camera, my guess is this style is actually more durable. Those lens cap shutters have been known to fail or not completely open. On the flip side, I’ve turned the camera on dozens of times with the cap on, it immediately alerts me on the screen the cap is on, and then turns off. I’m hoping this is an advanced enough pressure sensor to not put stress on the lens motor.
The TL500 uses a popup flash, which requires manual operation to activate. This is a good thing. All too often flashes on digital compacts create problems by activating without the photographer realizing, and in many cases it’s in flash free environments that this sort of camera might be used more often than a DSLR. The flash isn’t extremely powerful, but it seems its minor offset from the lens axis does help a bit with redeye. With the speed of the lens and the ability of the sensor, I am doubtful that flash would be needed for more than light fill, and truthfully full on direct flash never looks good anyway, if you need serious flash power, attach a strobe to the hot shoe.
Like most photographer oriented digital compacts, the TL500 has a hot shoe. This serves two purposes 1) you can mount an OVF to it, for quick framing without the LCD when needed 2) you can expand your creative lighting options. As the owner of this blog pointed out, when you want a camera this small you probably aren’t messing with flash units. While I generally agree, the option of being able to use this camera in more creative ways than a typical point and shoot compact is appealing. For instance Skyports or Pocket Wizards can be used for off camera lighting, or coupled with a manual flash like a Nikon SB-30 or SB-27 you can get quite a bit more punch while still being able to pocket the flash in your other pocket! An ideal portable creative lighting system would be Elinchron Skyports and a few small flash units. True for most serious strobing you would probably go with an SLR, but tossing a few compact flash heads into a suitcase should give you some additional travel options for creative lighting. It’s a value added bonus!
One of the distinguishing features of this camera is the swiveling 3in, 920k dot, AMOLED (Active-Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode) screen. The resolution on this screen is almost double that of its closest competitor, and the size of the screen is wonderful, giving clear text and tons of information on the shooting screen if desired. I’m not 100% sure AMOLED is as accurate as LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) in color reproduction, but its contrast ratio is much better. AMOLED, unlike LCD, is natively capable of giving true blacks, while LCD requires advanced technologies like LED back lighting to give it almost true blacks. Since this camera, like many in its class, doesn’t have an EVF or OVF, the ability for the screen to gain up in bright light is essential. The fact that AMOLED has wider viewing angles plus its ability to swivel on theTL500, makes the screen eminently more usable in comparison to many other LCDs on the market. I did not have any issues viewing this screen in bright light including contrasty mid afternoon light on sand where many LCDs become unusable.
One of the most important things to me in creating photographs is having quality equipment I not only like to use, but can use swiftly and efficiently. The smaller you make a camera, the more attention must be paid to the control layout. The TL500 is definitely fairly small for an average sized man’s hands (medium to large glove size), yet it does about as good of a job at being efficiently usable as a camera this size can do. Of course control layout preference is entirely subjective in nature so any and all references to the positioning of buttons or dials in terms of this reviewers reach and dexterity should be taken into account. The rear control wheel, contrary to DPReview’s listing in the cons, does not have an issue with being too finicky. The dial rotates pretty smoothly with some light detente stops and it’s easy enough to get to the aperture you are trying to get to without overshooting it. However, for my hands, the front control dial seems slightly difficult to find with my middle finger while keeping my index finger on the shutter. It’s not so much bad positioning, but the tactile feel of it isn’t ideal. Once your finger of choice is on it, you will have no problems adjusting EV compensation or shutter speed, which the front dial is in control of.
Beyond that almost all the regularly used features of the camera are easily accessible on the exterior of the camera or via the now fairly ubiquitous 4 way control pad and its quick menus.
There are external buttons for the following controls:
Via the dual control wheels (one on front, one on rear like high end DSLRs):
- Shutter speed
- EV comp
Via the drive dial:
- Single or continuous frame shooting via separate steps on the dial, switching from single to continuous is a great way to toggle RAW to JPEG, as the camera defaults to JPEG in continuous mode
- 2 or 10 second self timer via separate steps on the dial
Via the mode dial:
- P/A/S/M modes all with separate steps on the dial
- Smart (Green) mode
- Movie mode
- Scene mode
- Dual image stabilization mode
I should note, two of the top dial dial settings are completely redundant and unnecessary. The dual image stabilization is just high ISO priority plus optical stabilization. The movie mode can be accessed simply by pressing the red dotted button on the rear of the TL500. This will immediately start recording from any shooting mode.
The rear of the camera has the following buttons:
- AE-L which also doubles as an image protect button in playback
- Movie Record
- Metering Mode which allows selection of multi zone, center or spot metering at the touch of a button
- Menu which accesses the entire camera menu system including many of those options found within the Fn buttons menu
- Function (Fn) very similar to Canon G series menu for this button. It accesses current options for the shooting mode, such as face detection, image size, color mode, file type, white balance, and image stabilization among other things
In the middle of all these rear buttons is the 4 way D-pad surrounding the OK button, and all surrounded by the control wheel (Canon style). The four way controller handles the following quick menus:
- Display: scrolls through various screen views which selectively reduce information clutter on the screen. It doesn’t, however, offer the cameras grid function in this mode.
- Focus: allows you to scroll through 3 options, Normal, Macro, and MF modes. Sub modes such as select mode, single point or multi point are selected via the Fn menu.
- Flash Mode: requires you to manually open the pop up flash to access this menu. The flash will not ever pop up on its own, which I consider a good thing! Modes of the flash are tied to the shooting mode so not all options are available in all modes.
- ISO: this allows you to set ISO manually from ISO 80 to 3200 in full EV steps, plus offers an auto ISO mode. Auto ISO is grayed out in manual mode!
Although the menu system of the TL500 is fairly clean, lacking pages and pages of endless settings, they are the weak point of this camera. Fortunately, because of the reliance on old fashioned buttons, dials and knobs, the photographer should need to spend little time diving into them.
First, I should note the camera retains all your settings even after it turns off. The only setting it doesn’t keep is your zoom location, which is a shame actually, because hyper focal or zone focus via the manual focus option would be significantly more convenient. Personally, I am a huge fan of these sticky settings, most DSLRs allow you to select which settings are sticky even after the camera is turned off, and while the TL500 doesn’t offer quite that level of customization, it does the next best thing, it doesn’t mess with your settings. So as much as you might battle the camera at times, you will often just cruise through shooting with it if you are the type of person that sticks with certain settings.
Issues I have found with the controls and menus include the fact that, depending on what settings you have set, you might have to undo a setting to get to a setting you want “ungrayed” out. This actually isn’t that uncommon, for instance the Pentax K-7 has a similar quirk, but on that camera, like I suspect most others, it is a few very minor modes. On the TL500 it can be a bit frustrating at times for those requiring more than basic shooting functions.
As an example, you want select mode focus where you select a specific point. For some odd reason this isn’t available in single frame RAW mode. But it gets interesting, if I switch to continuous shooting mode which doesn’t allow RAW the menu option for select point is ungrayed. Now if I switch back to single shot RAW via the mode dial, the camera keeps the select mode active. This remains active even if I enter playback or turn the camera off. However, if I turn off select mode via the Fn menu the option immediately grays out. It turns out it has nothing to do with RAW or JPEG but just continuous vs. single frame shooting. Although, since you cannot shoot continuously in RAW it kinda is a RAW vs. JPEG issue. Do I consider this a major flaw? No, especially since I know how to get around it, but I can definitely see some poor soul beating their head against a wall trying to get that darn select mode active. On a positive note, the select mode works quite well, actually exactly like many SLRs do. Press the OK button to activate select mode, press it again to lock it after selection.
Although there probably are some additional little quirks, those really are the bulk of the menu issues. Beyond that the menus are actually well laid out, easy to navigate, concise and a pleasure to use. Better they don’t need to be used all that often!
Brief Look at Smart Auto 2.0, Face Recognition, Scene and Playback Modes
Smart Auto mode is essentially dumb mode. However, while a serious photographer probably will never use it, it serves the wonderful purpose of making the camera usable by anyone who happens to need to use it. Smart Auto mode essentially analyzes the scene on the fly, and applies various scene modes that are built into the camera. You can of course use these scene modes without Smart Auto, but Smart Auto brings the cameras difficulty down to the most basic function of composing and pressing the shutter. In my test of Smart Auto mode, I found it worked (surprisingly) well. The camera did actually seem to be able to recognize what was in front of it and adjust settings to yield good images. Coming from someone that will probably never use this mode, all the other quirks of the camera aside, this mode worked well enough that it could be a selling point as a general use digital compact.
Scene modes on the TL500 account for 12 unique settings. The most interesting to me, not having a digital compact newer than 2006 which lacked any sign of these modes, is the beauty shot mode. The camera smooths the skin in this mode and the parameters are adjustable for the amount of skin smoothness. You can go all the way from Pamela Anderson plastic right down to a little extra make-up smooth. In this mode, several face detection focus options are also available (as they are in several of the scene modes). My favorite of course, smile shot mode. Essentially the camera looks for a smile and then it fires a shot. I had fun playing with this on top of my computer monitor.
Smart face recognition mode is also interesting. You can store you favorite faces in the camera’s memory and it prioritizes those faces for exposure and focus. Although I haven’t figured out how or when to use smile detect (or blink detect for that matter), this mode would be certainly useful for making sure your child is sharp and well exposed in any group shot. Nothing is worse than getting the wrong kid in focus.
For those that need to regularly update their Facebook profile there is self portrait mode in the face detection mode. Helping you to create those ever wonderful arm’s length masterpieces.
Beyond that, most of the modes are standard camera fare: sunset, text, children…but curiously missing is a sports mode. I suppose the children’s mode might double as a sports mode. And on the Smart Auto, a sports player does pop up as one of the auto modes, however, it is clear this camera wasn’t designed by Samsung to be an action shooter’s main tool.
The TL500 also offers a Smart Range mode which is sort of an in camera double exposure blend. This, like many image functions, only works in JPEG mode and for best results requires a tripod or really steady hands.
One interesting feature tied into the camera’s Smart Face Recognition mode is the ability for it to highlight those images that contain saved faces when playing back the images in album mode. This actually could be useful to many people, especially after a day of shooting your child’s birthday party but not really caring about the 200 photos that don’t have your kid in them. The TL500 actually has a robust playback menu including additional sorting options such as color, image type and date. However, the Achilles heel is the inability to exit zoom mode without 2 clicks of the OK button.
In video playback you can capture web quality still images from the playback.
Everything seems to work properly and quickly. There are a few operating system GUI quirks which I mentioned previously, but most of them don’t heavily impact enjoyment of the photography process.
The camera isn’t outrageously fast while shooting JPEG Super Fine, and it’s acceptably slow when writing RAW. Samsung could have given a fast JPEG frame rate for sure; after all, the TL500 has enough buffer to take 2 successive RAW+JPEG Fine without clogging up when a fast SD card is used. RAW+JPEG fine equals about 24MB, so it can definitely hold and clear 20MB per second. Then again, Samsung could have made more use of the buffer by losslessly compressing the RAW file before writing it to the card. Samsung proprietary RAW .SRW files are 21MB, simply too big in an era when DSLRs with more pixels are putting out 10-15Mb files. This certainly has some impact on the camera’s operational speed, and yet it’s still fast enough.
As a loose comparison to my JPEG speed criticism, although it didn’t shoot in RAW, my old 2006 era Panasonic FX01 had several burst mode options and it could shoot at several frames per second in either a high speed burst mode or a lower speed burst mode. The different modes offered different utilization of the limited buffer space. One fired a lot of shots quickly, the other spaced them out to continuously shoot. The TL500 offers neither option, and while it is easy enough to reduce the JPEG file size either via increasing compression or reducing pixel size, I really didn’t notice much difference in capture frame rate while holding the shutter down.
Will most people looking at a camera like this be turned off enough by the slow burst rate? I’d say probably not. However, despite rarely needing a super fast burst rate, I often use the burst mode on the Panasonic FX01 when playing sports with the family, on hikes or skis in the mountains, or to capture kids or pets running around. Even with the LCD blackout I am usually able to follow the action and get a few action keepers. The TL500 without such a burst mode makes this sort of machine gun photography impossible.
It goes without saying that the IQ on this camera is outstanding. I won’t bore you with details, there are plenty of image samples and pixel peeping review sites on the web whose job it is to take very controlled image samples and measurements, this review wasn’t designed to supersede them.
Quite simply, at ISO 800 the TL500 is highly usable with pleasing RAW noise characteristics (see my photo of Colvin above), and at 1600 I consider the image quality and noise level to be acceptable, and even rivaling that of a DSLR from a few years ago. To see this sort of quality out of a 10MP digital compact is something that I do not think anyone expected just a few years ago. For that we are all in debt to Panasonic and its excellent LX3, the camera which brought this class of camera back from the dead!
The truth is this photographer lives below ISO 400 most of the time, and very rarely needs 800 or 1600, when i do need it, I appreciate the ability to be able to use it without fear. The TL500 does what I need, it gives me acceptable and printable results at ISO 800 and I wouldn’t be afraid to go to 1600 with it on occasion, especially if I was OK with converting to black and white. Consider that less than two years ago Canon was still releasing high end compacts that couldn’t even be used at ISO 400. The TL500 holds together wonderfully from ISO 200 to 400 without any reservations. Combined with the f/1.8 lens and the extended depth of field of the small sensor, the TL500 should rarely need to go above its high-quality ceiling of ISO 800!
Ultimately, my goal with any image isn’t to have it spend an eternity on a hard drive but have it printed and on someone’s wall. Thus far I have printed a few images from it at lower ISO, although most have been in more forgiving black and white (which was the intention when I shot them, not an escape route to acceptability as might have been the case with older compacts), the low ISO prints were outstanding at sizes I printed while being filled with detail and dynamic range at the wide end of the lens. I also ran a smaller ISO 80 8×10 color test print off and was equally happy with the colors and detail.
This camera does well shooting JPEG in some situations, and the JPEG engine does a great job cleaning up lens flaws. It does an exceptional job eliminating fringing and balancing noise vs detail at lower ISO, however, anyone buying this class of camera would be well suited to shoot in Samsung’s RAW format. Images will offer more detail, dynamic range, and less noise reduction. The result is the ability of the photographer to determine whether nuking noise or going with more detail is appropriate.
Although the camera lacks a noise reduction setting, Samsung did a wonderful job laying off noise reduction in RAW files. The result is a sort of gritty but natural high ISO detail without any real objectionable flaws. On the flip side, JPEG files can and do suffer from overly aggressive noise reduction, though in comparison are much nicer than similar files from some of this camera’s competitors in JPEG.
Video mode on the TL500 is largely an afterthought, with standard definition 640×480 format at 30fps. Although HD video is nice, and this reviewer certainly wouldn’t have objected to its inclusion, the TL500 was clearly optimized for still image capture. It uses a CCD instead of a CMOS, which limits the file transfer rates needed for HD video. Obviously Panasonic and now Canon have overcome this limitation using CCD sensors as well, so I have no doubt Samsung will in its 2nd iteration of this camera.
The quality of the video seems good for its SD resolution. With the dedicated video button it’s also plainly simple to go from stills to video when needed. One interesting feature is the camera has a setting that allows you to mute the microphone when zooming. Some compacts don’t allow zooming at all because of the lens “whirl” sound when zooming, I find this a nice compromise. Of course it can zoom without muting, it’s up to you.
While shooting video, hitting the shutter button will capture a web quality still image, and you can do this in playback as well.
Because the RAW files on the TL500 are so large, and the fact that only the most recent versions of Adobe RAW engines support the Samsung .SRW format, it behooves most shooters to download Adobe’s DNG converter. This will convert the large Samsung .SRW files into smaller .DNG files while also allowing them to be read on older versions of Adobe Camera RAW. The downside of this of course is you lose the built-in lens correction header that Samsung (SilkyPix) Raw Converter 3 is able to read. For some the ability to work directly in Lightroom will be more important than the distortion profiles which are most likely available for Lightroom 3. The added bonus of course is Adobe DNG files take up about 30% less space on your hard drive if you discard the original .SRW.
One further downside of DNG conversion is the included Samsung RAW converter powered by SilkyPix is not usuable with the DNG extension. As is common, these included RAW converters only work with the files from the camera maker, in this case native .SRW. The Samsung RAW Converter 3 is surprisingly capable and actually quite full featured, but those having grown accustomed to Adobe will find it a chore to use. There are endless adjustment parameters that lack enough labeling and help to fully understand. Only trial and error will help you figure them out. I’ve spent quite a bit of time using this software, and I find that in spite of my lack of experience with it, I am able to get excellent file output but I spend at least 2-3 times as long per image as I would with Lightroom. Those without Lightroom will not be hampered by this nearly as much.
Who Is this Camera For?
The market for this camera is a really good question. Because it’s so streamlined, so stripped down to the bare essentials, I’m going to say mostly photographers with a high photography IQ. What I mean by that is that it’s not ideally suited to beginners who still need scene modes as a crutch and have trouble with basic photographic principles. However, the Smart Mode and scene modes toss a monkey wrench into the whole bland categorization. These modes leverage this wonderful piece of hardware into perhaps a point and shoot on steroids.
Although it’s a little big, a little fancy, and somewhat expensive, this camera would make a pretty good indoor party type camera. You know, family gatherings, friendly get-togethers, a night at the bar, club, or dimly lit restaurant with a Michellin 3 star chef in the kitchen and your smokin’ hot wife or mistress on the other side of a candle lit table. It will certainly end the days of blurry, noisy, or deer in the headlights strobed snapshots. Yeah, it’s not as convenient as a cell phone or an ultra compact camera, but considering the IQ bump, it just might be worth the hassle if you’ve got apparel or a purse that can handle it.
Beyond that it will certainly make a wonderful available light camera for more creative fine art work at middle ISOs. The only issue I can see is the smaller sensor’s large depth of field would possibly limit creativity to some. However, the flip side is you could definitely justify using this camera in low light situations where you need depth of field. For instance, at f/2.4 and 24mm (effective) this camera has a hyper focal distance of approximately 6ft, meaning everything from 3ft to infinity is in focus. That gives you a lot of play for so much light gathering ability at say ISO 800. And f/2.4 is still 1/2 stop from wide open on this lens! Putting this into real world exposure numbers, a dimly lit restaurant with a candle on the table will be around EV 4. That means with the TL500 you can shoot around 1/30th of a second at f/2.0 at ISO 800 and still get a usable image.
With the lower ISOs performing so well it definitely would make a sufficient backup for a lightweight SLR travel kit. I took this and my Pentax 645N kit on vacation and loved the flexibility I had. Both systems gave me exceptional IQ, and both had unique advantages.
Once again although perhaps not entirely suited, the TL500 would also make a wonderful main camera for fast and ultra light outdoor pursuits where an SLR is just too big and cumbersome, and a small sensor compact with a slow lens just won’t give the IQ or light gathering ability to come home with acceptable images.
- No blinking shadow/highlights on instant review, live view or playback. This is a feature that most cameras have had since 2005. It’s a rather serious omission, and one I could see killing the camera for many people. This is a really big deal to me. I would think this is a simple firmware addition, and I’m optimistic Samsung will address this, but I really have no idea if they will. It seems simple but perhaps it’s an obstacle of using AMOLED screens, I really don’t know, and I am confused why it wouldn’t be a key feature. The camera does have a live histogram, if you find this acceptable you won’t miss a beat!
- When zooming in during playback, there is no simple way to back out of the zoom mode. I often zoom in to check my focus and depth of field. Granted, even a beautiful 3in 920,00 dot screen like the TL500s AMOLED is barely adequate for really judging focus and subject sharpness, but it’s still something that most photographers try to do on important shots while in the field, so I expect everyone to be annoyed by this. Again, I could see this as being a problem that people might not want to wait for a firmware update to fix. Essentially you can hit OK to activate the trimming (crop) menu when zoomed in and then hit cancel, or you can press the zoom button in the reverse direction to get back to 1.0X. Other than that there is no simple single button press.
- Allow selectable noise reduction for JPEG shooters. While this really isn’t a camera that you should be shooting JPEGs with and not taking advantage of every bit of IQ possible, it is something that might be useful in non JPEG modes like continuous mode. For instance, you’d probably be using continuous mode in settings where you might have a higher ISO, such as action or street shooting. In these modes being able to turn off or lower the noise reduction settings would be appreciated. However, this camera, like almost all point and shoots in this class, lacks both the telephoto range and the speed to really capture sports. I suspect not many people will really care.
- Although probably not firmware fixable, and even if it was, I’m sure Samsung would not give up the chance to make a splash with the second generation: 720P HD video is not available in this camera. Like the Canon S90 and G11, the highest resolution video is 640×480 at 30fps.
- This is one of those, huh, how did they not include this in the original firmware? The TL500 for some odd reason lacks any ability to turn off digital zoom in auto focus modes. In manual mode digital zoom is automatically turned off. Even the most basic digital camera has this, and going from the end of the optical zoom range isn’t very difficult. In my opinion, no one buying this camera would ever use digital zoom, so forget about making it optional, it never should have been on the camera in the first place.
- A better manual focus mode. Unfortunately the camera does not zoom in on manual focus mode, nor does it have an option to do so. So you focus manually at 1x magnification. It works just fine, but it’s definitely more reassuring when I can really zoom in while using the screen. It’s one of those odd omissions that most cameras tend to have standard.
Samsung could solve almost all the issues I have listed as cons with a modest firmware update.
Samsung really came to the plate swinging with this camera, and aside from a few quirks I consider this to be the camera to beat in this very niche segment. In many ways this camera is like a digital version of a Pentax K1000 with a 24mm 1.8, 50mm f/2, and 85mm 2.4 in the camera bag. It’s a photographic tool with a fast lens and just enough features to not get in the way. On the flip side, the TL500 is an example of why a digital K1000 could never be successful. I’ve seen plenty of grumbling: it’s slow, it lacks features, the firmware is clunky, there aren’t 1000 pages of custom settings, etc. All might be true to some degree, however, how fast was the K1000 or OM-1 or any other manual film camera? When you break the TL500 down to the very basics, it offers superior imaging in a robust package that features a no nonsense control layout. It very much reminds me of a full manual SLR with a fast lens. Of course, it has enough features that you can hand it off to your neophyte cameraphobe significant other and they will be able to instantly produce wonderful images. As a matter of fact, I think the Smart Auto scene mode might be the best I have seen on a camera. The group I think would be least interested in this camera is the spec-sheet-reading, menu-diving enthusiast that views a camera as another digital gadget. A digital gadget this camera is not, pure and simple; it’s as serious a photographic tool as you can get from such a compact package!
I will be adding more photos to my Samsung EX1/TL500 Flickr set as I continue to use the camera, so be sure to check back regularly for more examples.
All sample photos: ©Justin Serpico.
|Justin Serpico is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in commercial, sports, adventure, and travel photography. He has a passion for protecting the wild landscapes seen through the lens of his camera.|
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Tags: Adirondacks, Cameras, P&S, Phototgraphy, Reviews, Samsung EX1, Samsung TL500