DigitalCameraReview.com
Samsung Digimax U-CA5 Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  7/18/2005

The Samsung Digimax U-CA 5 is a compact, stylish, and reasonably priced five-megapixel digital camera.

Pros: Relatively quick, super sharp lens

Cons: Unintuitive menus, consistent tendency toward overexposure, and flat colors

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NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

The U-CA5 doesn't have an optical viewfinder so all framing and composition must be done with the camera's 1.8-inch LCD screen. The LCD is bright (brightness is adjustable via the set-up menu), color correct, and relatively fluid.

Lens

The U-CA 5's f2.8-f4.8/35-105mm (35mm equivalent) all-glass 3X optical zoom is very sharp; it renders complex detail very nicely, under optimum conditions. The lens extends automatically from the camera body when the camera is powered up and retracts into the body completely when the camera is powered down (a built-in lens cover closes over the lens). Zoom operation is smooth, quick, and fairly quiet. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is about 2 inches (at the wide angle end of the zoom range). Macro images are very sharp with excellent detail (as long as the sun is behind the photographer).

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Notice the tack sharp resolution in the wings and thorax of this Checkerspot butterfly

The UCA5's zoom shows above average barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range and minor pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center) at the telephoto end of the zoom. Corners are slightly soft, but there's no vignetting (darkened corners). Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is present, but well controlled.

Auto Focus

The U-CA5 features a standard and fairly unexciting Contrast Detection Auto Focus system. AF is consistently fast, uncomplicated, and accurate. In low light an AF focus aid beam automatically illuminates the subject for more accurate focusing.

Flash

The U-CA5's built-in multi mode flash provides users with an adequate range of flash options including: Auto (fires when needed), Auto plus red-eye reduction, On (fill flash), Slow-synch, Safety Flash (in SF mode the flash doesn't fire but the U-CA5's processor automatically brightens the image before recording it to the SD card), and off. Samsung claims the maximum flash range is just over 9 feet, which seems to be (based on my limited use) a fairly accurate estimate.

Memory Media/ Image File Format(s)/Connectivity

The U-CA5 saves images to SD media. Samsung includes a 32MB SD Card (luckily, they sent a 128MB with the review unit).

JPEG

USB 2.0 out, A/V out, DC in

Power

The U-CA5 draws its power from a proprietary Samsung SLB-1137 rechargeable Li-ion battery pack. Samsung claims the U-CA5 is good for up to 200 exposures with a fully charged SLB-1137. Based on my admittedly unscientific tests and personal shooting style (full time LCD use, occasional flash/fill flash use, and heavy shoot- review- delete - and re-shoot) the U-CA5 is good for 125-150 exposures. The U-CA5 (mounted in the docking cradle) needs about 2.5 hours to fully charge the SLB-1137.

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EXPOSURE

The U-CA5 provides users with an acceptable range of auto exposure options including: Auto (Point and Shoot mode), Manual (Program AE with user input), and Scene modes (Night, Portrait, Children, Landscape, Close-up, Text, Sunset, Dawn, Backlight, Fireworks, and Beach & Snow). Despite having a Manual mode the U-CA5 doesn't provide any manual exposure options. In Manual mode users can change all exposure parameters, "except aperture value and shutter speed" (from the U-CA5 user's manual).

Movie Mode

The U-CA5 records (MPEG-4) video clips (with mono audio) at 640X480 @ 30 fps. Video clip duration is limited only by SD card capacity. The U-CA5 also features a video image stabilizer that automatically detects and corrects for both lateral and vertical camera movement.

Metering

The default Multi (evaluative) metering system is accurate in subdued outdoor lighting, but the U-CA5 has a frustrating tendency to overexpose in bright outdoor lighting. More experienced photographers can opt for Spot metering for more control and for a more traditional "look" in portraits and landscapes.

White Balance

The U-CA5 provides users with a decent selection of white balance options including: TTL Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent H, Fluorescent L, Tungsten, and a Custom mode that allows shooters to use a white card (or white wall or ceiling) for manual color balance. In Auto WB mode the U-CA5's colors are accurate, but a bit flat and under saturated.

Sensitivity

TTL Auto and 100, 200, & 400 ISO equivalents

In-Camera Image Adjustment

In camera image adjustment is an often overlooked but very important tool for overcoming minor exposure problems, especially with auto exposure only digicams. The U-CA5 provides shooters with a very basic range of built-in exposure tweaks -- Sharpness (soft, normal, vivid) and Exposure Compensation (+/- 2EV in EV increments). It would have been nice to also have color saturation and contrast adjustment options.

Technical Specifications

Resolution: 5.0 megapixels (2592x1944)
Viewfinder/LCD: No Optical Viewfinder. 1.8" LCD Screen
Lens: f2.8-f4.8.35-105mm (35mm equivalent) 3X all-glass optical zoom.
Auto Focus: Contrast Detection
Manual Focus: No
Exposure: Auto, Manual (Program AE) and Scene modes
Metering: Multi and Spot
Flash: built-in multi mode
White Balance: TTL Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent H, Fluorescent L, Tungsten, and Custom
Sensitivity: TTL Auto, and 100, 200, and 400 (ISO equivalent) settings
Image File Format(s): JPEG
Image Storage Format: SD Cards
Power: Samsung SLB-1137 Li-ion rechargeable

Street Price Range $229.00-$249.00

Included

SLB-1137 re-chargeable battery pack, charger/cradle, belt pouch, wrist strap, 32MB SD card, USB & A/V cables, Software CD-ROM, printed user's manual

In the Field/Handling & Operation

The U-CA5's stylishly rounded silver/chrome polycarbonate body (available with gray, red, or blue trim) is about the size of a cell phone. Ergonomics are good and controls logically laid out and come easily to hand. The recessed on/off switch is very small and difficult to use and the super bright electric blue light behind the compass switch (4 way controller) can be a bit disconcerting. My friend (who sells new and used analog and digital photo equipment) thought it "made the U-CA5 look like a cheap cell phone". The U-CA5's menus are not intuitive and menu navigation is awkward and unnecessarily cumbersome.

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I've been a photographer for more than thirty years and I'm a fairly demanding camera user. I judge lenses on their ability to show the interplay of light and shadow, emphasize texture, and reveal subtle color gradations. I like to shoot from different perspectives and move around to manipulate the light on my subjects.

My first outing with the U-CA5 was a beautiful late afternoon in Old Louisville. Almost everything I shot was coming out overexposed. I used the U-CA5's exposure compensation adjustment to modify my exposures and kept shooting, but everything was still coming out overexposed. After examining all my saved images from that outing (on a NEC 17" CRT monitor) I noticed that in every outdoor shot where the light was bright and frontal (backlighting and sidelighting) the image was overexposed. My wife referred to this effect as "Samsung's built-in bleach filter".

  
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The image on the left (manipulated to show how I saw this backlit subject) is how the U-CA5 (with minus one stop of exposure compensation) should have recorded this image. The example on the right is the overexposed image the U-CA5 actually recorded.

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Images shot with the light coming from behind me were more correctly exposed and showed very good resolution and accurate (but slightly flat) colors.

Exposure accuracy problems caused by the CCD sensor, shutter, or light-metering system should be constant and not based on the direction and intensity of the light. Since images shot with the sun at my back were much more accurately exposed the problem obviously wasn't with the quality of the optical glass, the alignment (collimation) of the lens elements, or the efficacy of the U-CA5's anti reflection lens coatings. Basically, this narrows the possible causes; the sensor can't handle bright outdoor light, the light metering system was designed for a planet with a dim red sun, the shutter is calibrated for a non-standard time reality, or the problem is the U-CA5's zoom lens.

To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes -- once the impossible has been eliminated, whatever remains (however unlikely) is the solution. The most probable answer is the zoom's interior anti reflection/anti glare damping. In modern lenses the inside of the lens barrel is coated with a light absorptive black flocking that prevents light bounce, glare, and reflections inside the lens barrel. When this covering is sloppily or unevenly applied -- glare, reflections, and light bounce degrade image quality, color, and contrast -- especially in shots with bright frontal lighting.

My conclusions are based on one camera, so the problem may be an isolated defect rather than something that affects ALL Samsung Digimax U-CA5 digicams.

To test for this problem find a group of tall flowers or leafy plants and position the sun behind and above them so the directional lighting makes them glow. Position yourself slightly to one side of the direction of the light and make sure the sun is not in or near the edge of the image frame.

Shoot several pictures of the back-lit subject and then change position so the sun is behind the camera -- lighting the flowers/plants from the front (frontlighting) and shoot another series of pictures -- then compare the two sets of pictures and any problems should be glaringly obvious.

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

Overall, the U-CA5's image quality is a bit below average. The zoom is super sharp, but color is flat and under-saturated. Images look washed out because the U-CA5 has a consistent tendency to overexpose. Outdoor images often show burned out highlights and lack of detail in shadow areas. Pattern noise is noticeably above average, but well managed in ISO 100 and ISO 200 images. ISO 400 images show well above average noise levels.

Timing/Shutter Lag

The U-CA5 is quick, especially for a camera in this price class. The boot-up cycle is an unimpressive 4 seconds, but after the camera is up and running everything is quicker. Shutter lag (with pre-focus) is 1/4 about of a second and about 3/4 of a second from scratch. Shot to shot time is about 2 seconds and write to card times are quick enough not to interfere with sequence shooting. I shot a number of exposures of a very cooperative Giant Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, pressing the shutter button each time I was able to bring him/her back into focus -- I never once got that incredibly irritating "please wait, the camera is busy" screen that pops up when digicams can't keep up.

A Few Concerns

The U-CA5's worst fault is its aggravating tendency to overexpose, which was exacerbated by the sloppy anti glare/anti reflection damping inside the zoom.

The U-CA5's recessed on/off switch is very frustrating, sometimes when you push it the camera comes on and sometimes it doesn't.

Conclusion

For those who receive the Samsung Digimax U-CA5 as a gift or purchase it on impulse -- the camera is capable of making decent pictures, but you'll have to work pretty hard for them. For everyone else -- even though Samsung sweetens the deal by including a nifty little belt holster -- give this one a pass. Kick up a few extra bucks and shop around for a similarly featured five-megapixel digicam or (for about the same price as the U-CA5) purchase a best-in-class four-megapixel digicam like the Canon Powershot A520.

Pros: Relatively quick, super sharp lens

Cons: Unintuitive menus, consistent tendency toward overexposure, and flat colors