Samsung's getting closer. Watch out Canon/Nikon/Sony/Panasonic.
What is it?
The Samsung TL500 is a largish compact camera with some very desirable features. The 10mp 1/1.7" CCD sensor, 24-72mm (equivalent) f/1.8-2.4 Schneider-Kreuznach lens (with a real lens cap), coupled some higher end controls and a very nice 3" 614k dot OLED swivel LCD, make for a package that instantly has a lot of appeal to photo enthusiasts.
One of the strange properties of this Samsung is that it is somewhat more traditional in design and control than some cameras from traditional makers. There appears to be some serious photographers involved in Samsung designs. The body is substantial and mostly metal. You've got a nice rubberized grip on the front, with a front control wheel (mostly controls shutter speeds, a bit opposite of what us Nikon shooters expect, but a click indent and spin on it controls exposure compensation in all exposure modes). A mode dial that's uncluttered is accompanied by a second dial, which selects shooting method. The recessed on/off button is in the middle of that second dial, and has a soft blue LED glow when the camera is on. A pop-up flash rises from the top, and you've got a hot shoe centered over the lens (yes!). The back of the camera is a little more compact camerish, as it has the usual small direction pad with a command dial around it. There's an AEL button (yes), a metering method button, and a Fn button, though the Fn button is oddly placed in the bottom right corner. All the buttons are right-handers. That's because the 3" LCD swivels out from the left. The swivel is sure and stays put; it even has some click stops during rotation. While the camera isn't heavy (3 ounces), it feels substantial and well built for a compact.
The tripod mount is not aligned with the lens. The neck straps are in correct opposing positions. The camera will shoot raw as well as JPEG, but it isn't exactly set up for video, as it only shoots VGA at 30 fps, best case. The lens is stabilized and has a close focus distance of 5cm. Top shutter speed is 1/1600 second (slow is 16 seconds). The camera has an audio memo function.
The camera comes in black for US$399 or less.
How's it Handle?
Here's where Samsung is doing something I wish the traditional makers would pay more attention to: the controls feel photographer friendly. We've got four dials (front, rear, and the two settings dials on top). The menu system is a pleasure to look at, uncluttered, and for the most part logical and understandable. The basic information mode on the LCD is clean and uncluttered, with a very nice information bar at the bottom, much like a DSLR viewfinder in nature (exposure mode, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, shots remaining, card, battery). There's contextual help in almost every setting you might make, written in fairly clear and understandable language (at least in the English language--can't vouch for the others). Better still, you can turn the help off.
It would have been nice to have histograms a toggle feature like grids are (so you could use it with the basic display), but Samsung didn't miss many details like that. The Fn button isn't actually a programmable function button, as you'd expect, but rather a quick menu system for common settings. Given that we've got a dial for exposure compensation and ISO is one of the direct buttons on the direction pad, I tend to leave Fn pointing to white balance. This pretty much gives me top level control over the major stuff while shooting, exactly where I want it.
My primary complaint is about focus settings. First, that 5cm number is at wide angle, not telephoto, which is a shame. But let's say you want to set focus manually. How do you do that? It's not something you'll figure out without reading about it, unfortunately. Press the focus button on the direction pad. Navigate to MF. So far so good. Now press the zoom lever around the shutter release to engage the focus ring. You'll get a zoomed in, and only zoomed in view, as you move the focus via the direction pad dial. Very strange design, and not particularly usable handheld.
Still, as compacts go, there's little that frustrates once you learn how Samsung set things up and you stay in the normal shooting modes.
How's it Perform?
Yes, small battery. Maybe you'll get 200 shots out of it. I barely did in my testing. Like a lot of compacts, Samsung doesn't supply a battery charger, they supply a USB-type charger that plugs directly into the camera. Only the camera doesn't have a traditional USB connector, so don't lose that Samsung cable.
Individual shots have little lag and the focus system is fast enough, even in the low light levels I typically keep my office at (f/1.8 at 1/2 second at ISO 100 as I write this). But continuous shooting is a bit slow. Samsung didn't indicate a continuous speed, but I make it out to be 1.5 fps in JPEG (raw can't be shot continuously, and raw file saves are something over 2 seconds with the fast card I have in the camera). Not exactly a sports camera, but for one-at-a-time shooting it is perfectly respectable, and better than the Nikon P7000's slow raw writes.
The lens is excellent. Despite the fast aperture it is mostly up to the challenge at 24mm. There's visible barrel distortion at 24mm and pin cushion at 72mm, but easily correctable. However, note that JPEGs get some (but not enough) correction, whereas raw is uncorrected. Corners are a little soft at 24mm, but not objectionably so. Overall it performs much like you'd expect a Schneider design to: above average. Of course, 24-72mm isn't much range, so we'd expect above average performance with such a limited zoom. Fortunately, we get what we expect.
The camera had a tendency to "over meter" for me. In high contrast scenes, it often clipped highlights. In low contrast scenes, it was a bit over prone to pick up on an all-bright or all-dark area and move it aggressively to gray. And that's the matrix meter. You've got a histogram function, so use it. But you'll be dialing exposure compensation fairly often on this camera. It doesn't help that the claimed ISO values are about a third of a stop high. So if you're using an external meter, be prepared to set it at ISO 80 instead of 100, and so on.
Samsung is too aggressive with noise reduction on JPEGs. At base ISO everything's fine, but even by ISO 400 there's detail destruction going on that's excessive. The funny thing is, the raw data is, I think, better on the TL500 than it is on the S95 or LX-5 at higher ISO values. I might go as high as ISO 800 on this camera in raw, but never in JPEG.
Bonus coverage! Return of the basketball test:
ISO 3200. From top to bottom: in-camera JPEG, raw file with no noise reduction in Adobe ACR, and a first approximation of what you might be able to do with the raw file with Adobe ACR. Remember, this is a small sensor camera being pushed to the extreme in my worse case test (high ISO, slight underexposure), and you're looking at 100% view. I don't often show the basketball test with compact cameras, as they usually fail miserably. The TL500 isn't a low light wiz, but it's not totally unusable, either. With the good f/1.8 lens, you can push into lower light levels with this compact than you can with most.
There's a lot to like in the TL500, though mainly for raw shooters, as the JPEGs are over managed. The controls are recognizable and straightforward. The display is gloriously bright and easy to see, plus the swivel is exceedingly useful (plus it protects the display when in your pocket). Some of the fine details let the TL500 down a little: the flash is weak (though there is an add-on one that's stronger), the video is laughably 90's, the focus and metering could use a bit more attention. Still, it's a pleasure to use this camera, and the raw image quality is quite good for a small sensor camera. Some people will love it because of all that.
||Strong still camera basic design with no frills, little video.
||Raw shooters will tend to like what they get, JPEG shooters less so.
||Not outstanding, not terrible.
Ratings last updated: 8/5/2011