Samsung's TL500 (EX-1 in Europe) is not your typical compact digital camera. The TL500 can function nicely as a point and shoot camera, but it was designed for photo enthusiasts. The very compact TL500 is attractive in an understated way, feels solid and stable in your hands, and features a robustly constructed all metal body with a genuine handgrip.
Most current point-and-shoots come with a flimsy wrist strap, but the TL500 sports a neckstrap which not only provides better protection against drops and bumps, but also saves a few seconds when a Kodak moment occurs since the camera is always at hand rather than in your pocket (or worse, at home). The TL500, unlike the auto exposure only point-and-shoots currently dominating the imaging marketplace, permits full manual control of exposure.
The TL500's first-rate 3x zoom (from legendary German lens maker Schneider-Kreuznach) features a very fast f/1.8 maximum aperture, which makes it almost a full f-stop faster (it lets in nearly twice as much light as the f/2.8 maximum apertures of the vast majority of current point-and-shoots) than most of its competition. Faster lenses are, everything else being equal, better than slower lenses because they substantially increase low light/natural light options for serious photographers.
But the TL500's strongest appeal may be to straight-shooters (photojournalists, documentary photographers, street/candid shooters, available/natural light enthusiasts, and environmental portraitists) because it was clearly designed for reactive photography. The TL500 is an almost perfect straight shooter's camera - it is unintimidating to subjects, very responsive, and capable of dependably producing first-rate 10 megapixel RAW format digital negatives or JPEG image files.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The Samsung TL500 is a thoughtfully designed, precision built and robustly constructed imaging tool that was obviously designed for serious shooters.
The TL500 is an attractively understated (traditional black) digicam that reminds me of classic compact cameras from the past, like the Rollei 35S. The TL500 is small enough to be dropped in a jacket pocket and light enough to be used all day without fatigue. The TL500's all metal body is built to withstand the rigors of time and heavy use.
Ergonomics and Controls
The TL500's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are a bit small, but they are all clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed. On the TL500's back deck, above the compass switch, are the AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) and one touch video buttons. Next are the Menu and Metering buttons. The TL500's compass switch (4-way controller) provides direct access to flash settings, macro mode, Sensitivity (ISO), and the LCD display.
The compass switch is also a rotary jog dial which I used primarily in review mode. Other users might employ it to easily and quickly scroll through menu options. Below the compass switch are the Review and Fn (function) buttons. Pushing the Fn button provides direct access to white balance, image size, metering options, AF options, OIS, etc. The Fn button functions as the delete button in review mode.
The Power button (surrounded by the drive mode dial), shutter release button (surrounded by the zoom toggle switch) and mode dial form a triangle that dominates the right side of the camera's top deck. On the front of the camera, just below the shutter button, at the top of the handgrip (exactly where the second finger of your right hand rests naturally) is a control wheel which can be used to change various settings like aperture or shutter speed, or to quickly scroll through the menu.
Samsung gets my all-time usability grand prize for this control array which allows TL500 users to manage power on/off, mode selection, zooming, change settings, menu navigation and image capture with the thumb, forefinger, and second finger of the right hand - without letting go of the camera. The Samsung TL500's control array is the best I've ever seen and I've been using and testing digital cameras for almost a dozen years. Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Fuji would be well advised to steal the TL500's ergonomically perfect control array for their premium point-and-shoots.
Menus and Modes
The Samsung TL500 features a user-friendly, icon driven, five tab menu system. The TL500's menu system, accessed via a dedicated button above the compass switch, is logical and easy to navigate. I have praised the TL500's usability up to this point, but what were Samsung's designers thinking when they buried the exposure compensation function in the very middle of a long list of menu options? The EV function should allow users to easily and quickly lighten or darken images (incrementally) in Program mode.
This single misstep is, in my opinion, the TL500's greatest fault. Here's a note to camera designers everywhere - the exposure compensation function should at best have its own dedicated button (or a place on the compass switch) and at worst, be available quickly via the function button.
The Samsung TL500 provides a comprehensive selection of shooting modes including:
Like most current P&S digicams the TL500 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder, but there is an optional OVF (that mounts in the hot shoe) available. Users must rely instead on the 3.0-inch (614,000 pixels) tilt-swivel camcorder style AMOLED LCD screen for all framing/composition, captured image review and menu navigation chores. Most modern shooters rarely use optical viewfinders with point-and-shoots (if present) and in many shooting scenarios, it is actually quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen than it is through an optical viewfinder.
The TL500's LCD screen can be rotated up to 270 degrees. This allows users to sneakily frame subjects, get closer and manage the plane of focus more accurately in macro mode, shoot verticals above the heads of the crowd, and turn the LCD inward against the back of the camera to protect it (when not in use) from smudges and scratches.
The TL500's LCD screen is bright, hue accurate, fluid (smooth - not jerky), automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers approximately 100% of the image frame. The TL500's LCD screen, like all LCD monitors, is subject to fading and glare/reflections in bright outdoor lighting, but I can't address that issue with regard to the TL500 since we haven't had much in the way of bright outdoor lighting here in the Bluegrass State for almost a month. I'll have to rely instead on the peak brightness and contrast ratio ratings from the DCR test lab.
The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed buying decisions. A decent LCD contrast ratio should fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1. That would be bright enough to use the LCD for framing and composition in outdoor lighting, and it would provide a better sense of color and contrast. The TL500 weighs in on the very high end of that scale at 2430:1 - for comparison purposes, a couple of Canon's entry level point-and-shoot models score in the mid 400's. Peak brightness for the TL500 (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 243 nits and on the dark side, the measurement is 0.10. For reference, anything above 500 nits will be fairly bright outdoors.
The default info display provides all the data this camera's target audience is likely to want or need, but I do have one minor complaint with the TL500's LCD. The information display bar at the bottom of the frame is dark-toned and actually blocks a small portion of the frame. That's bad because the dark area is at the bottom of the frame, which makes it difficult to judge whether or not you've left enough room at the base of the image to prevent cutting off something important, like the subject's feet. The info display can be disabled, so it is not a big deal - unless you want to see the whole frame and still have all the relevant information (shutter speed and aperture) about the image you're composing.
The TL500 is a first rate general purpose point-and-shoot that will dependably produce excellent quality images not only for photography enthusiasts, but also for travelers, casual shooters, and straight-shooters.
Timing is one of the most important considerations when assessing digital camera performance. The TL500's DCR lab-measured times are at or near the top of its class in shutter lag (0.01) and AF acquisition (0.43), but it is much slower (1.5 fps) than most of its competition in continuous shooting mode. Interestingly, the TL500 beats the Canon G12 in every timing category except continuous shooting.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5||0.01|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55||0.01|
|Canon PowerShot G12||0.04|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55||0.28|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5||0.40|
|Canon PowerShot G12||0.50|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5||3||3.3 fps
|Canon PowerShot G12||∞||2.1 fps
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55||4||1.9 fps
|Samsung TL500||∞||1.5 fps
*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
Auto exposure in Smart Auto and Program modes is consistently and dependably accurate and impressively quick. The TL500 dependably chooses the appropriate shutter speed in aperture priority mode and the appropriate aperture in shutter speed priority mode. In manual mode, exposure accuracy is dependent on the skill and experience of the shooter.
The TL500 features a TTL Contrast Detection AF system with Center AF, Multi AF, Selection AF, Tracking AF, Face Detection AF and Smart Face Recognition AF modes. The TL500's AF system analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera-to-subject distance to determine which AF point (in multi AF mode) is closest to the primary subject and then locks focus on that AF point. Press the shutter button halfway and the AF marks will turn green (if focus is achieved) or red if the AF system can't achieve focus.
The TL500's's Center AF option is super for portraits and traditional landscapes, but it is even better for street shooting since straight shooters don't want the camera selecting which face in the crowd to focus on. AF is consistently quick and dependably accurate.
Push the TL500's flash release slider switch and the pop-up flash deploys with a satisfyingly solid thump - there is also a standard hot shoe for mounting external flash units like Samsung's SEF 20A. The TL500's small multi mode pop-up flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including Auto, Auto & Red-eye reduction, Fill flash, Slow sync, Red-eye fix, and Manual - plus (+/- 2EV) flash exposure compensation. According to Samsung, the maximum flash range is about 20 feet at Auto ISO, which seems a bit optimistic given the small size of the unit. Based on my very limited flash use, the TL500's flash recycle time is about 5 seconds.
The TL500's sensor shift image stabilization system reduces blur by rapidly and precisely shifting the 1/1.7-inch CCD sensor to compensate for minor camera movement. Image stabilization allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three f-stops slower than would have been possible otherwise. Image stabilization is also helpful when shooting in dimly lit indoor venues where flash is inappropriate or where flash use would be obvious when viewing the image.
Check out the image below which was shot in the work room of an old friend's leather shop. Room lighting was from a single cool white fluorescent tube. My friend's hands are a little blurred, but the rest of him is pretty sharp. This image would have been impossible (without flash) using a digicam with an f/2.8 maximum aperture, but the TL500's f/1.8 maximum aperture allowed almost twice as much light to reach the sensor. Interestingly, this image also showcases the efficacy of the TL500's auto white balance mode which rendered colors fairly accurately even under the "greenish" cool white fluorescent lighting.
Samsung's Dual IS mode combines the TL500's standard mechanical sensor-shift with higher sensitivity and faster shutter speeds to insure sharper images. Does Dual IS really work, and should it have a dedicated spot on the mode dial? With this camera the answer is yes to both questions. Check out the images below - they were shot in a friend's dimly lit living room. The blurry picture was shot with the TL500 in Program mode (auto WB/Auto ISO) with standard Image Stabilization. Here's the exposure data - ISO 80 at 7/10ths of a second. The sharper picture was shot with the TL500 in Dual IS mode. Here's the exposure data - ISO 800 at 1/15th of a second. Interestingly the sharper image also shows the efficacy of the TL500's noise management system - this picture looks more like an ISO 400 image than an ISO 800 image.
According to Samsung, the TL500 is good for about 240 exposures (without flash) or 100 minutes of video on a freshly charged SLB-07A rechargeable lithium-ion battery. That's fewer exposures than average for cameras of this type. The battery is charged inside the camera - an external AC charger isn't included, but Samsung offers external chargers as optional accessories.
The battery can be charged via a powered USB port on your computer or with the included AC charging cable. The Samsung TL500 supports SD/SDHC memory media and provides 1GB of built-in image storage.
On the right side of the TL500 is a small locking (metal) door with two I/O ports. The top port is the HDMI connection for hooking the camera up to an HDTV. The second port is the USB connection for downloading images and video to your computer, direct printing when plugged into a compatible printer, standard video output via the optional A/V cables, and charging the battery.
The Samsung TL500 is built around its very fast f/1.8-2.4, 5.6-15.6mm (24-72mm equivalent) Schneider-Kreuznach Varioplan zoom lens. Most point-and-shoots offer zooms with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or slower. The TL500's f/1.8 maximum aperture lets in almost twice as much light as an f/2.8 maximum aperture, which allows faster shutter speeds (in dim light) without boosting sensitivity and shallower depth of field for less distracting backgrounds.
When the TL500 is powered up, the zoom extends from the camera body automatically, once you remove the included pinch-clip lens cap. When the camera is powered down, the lens retracts into the camera body. A word of caution for TL500 purchasers - I kept misplacing that tiny lens cap.
Zooming is smooth and relatively quiet. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is just shy of two inches (5 centimeters). The TL500 needs about 2 seconds to move the zoom lens from wide angle to telephoto.
The TL500's Schneider zoom is amazingly good even though it displays some very minor corner softness, but there's no vignetting (dark corners) at the wide angle end of the lens. Barrel distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range is essentially absent, which is very impressive optical design and engineering. Check out the bricks in the mural below, shot at the wide-angle end of the zoom - no barrel distortion is visible. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow outward from the center of the frame) is absent at the telephoto end of the zoom.
Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is remarkably well controlled - essentially absent at both ends of the zoom range. The textured ring surrounding the zoom can be unscrewed to reveal threads for attaching optional conversion lenses - Samsung currently offers only one conversion lens - the LWCEX01 wide conversion lens which takes the TL500 into ultra-wide range.
I've talked to a couple of my photographer friends since I've been carrying the TL500 around and they were surprised that a four hundred dollar point-and-shoot didn't provide an HD movie mode. Most consumers expect premium digicams to offer a full complement of cutting edge features and most of Samsung's competitors offer HD (720p) movie modes. What's up with that?
Maybe the folks at Samsung figured that the TL500's target audience wouldn't be shooting much video and didn't really care as much about HD video as they did about other features like the TL500's superb Schneider zoom. The TL500 records video at 640 x 480 at 30fps with mono audio. The zoom can be used during video capture, but the sound of the lens motor will be recorded. VGA video clips generated by the TL500 are fairly sharp, fluid (not jerky), and hue accurate.
The video in the player above has been compressed and re-encoded for streaming online. To download the original file in its native resolution and format, click the link below.
Download TL500 Sample Video Here
If you absolutely must have HD video check out Canon's superb S95 or Panasonic's pack leading LX5. The video clip that accompanies this review was shot in the late afternoon of a cold gray overcast day.
The TL500's 10 megapixel 1/1.7" CCD sensor drives Samsung's DRIMe III image processor to produce reliably excellent images. The TL500's image files are clearly optimized for accurate real world colors and slightly hard contrast. Images display very good resolution (sharpness) with neutral colors and almost no noise up to ISO 800. Viewed on my IBM monitor images from the TL500 look a lot like the ISO 100 Agfa slides I shot while I was living in Germany.
Most current digicams boost color saturation - reds are a bit too warm, blues are noticeably brighter than they are in real life and greens/yellows are overly vibrant. Veteran shooters call this "consumer color" because casual shooters (the demographic that buys the most digicams) like bright bold colors. The TL500's images are highly-detailed and surprisingly sharp with neutral colors and good contrast.
The TL500 provides users with a very good selection of White Balance options, including Auto WB, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Tungsten, and Custom (manual WB). The TL500's auto WB system does a very good job across the board, even under incandescent (tungsten) and fluorescent lighting.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
The megapixel wars have finally arrived at the point of diminishing returns - crowding more pixels onto tiny sensors dependably results in higher levels of image degrading noise and lowered contrast. Compact digital cameras with 12 or 14 megapixel resolution don't really produce better pictures than digicams with lower resolution - they just generate larger and noisier image files. The TL500 features 10 megapixel resolution, which indicates Samsung is committed to improving performance at higher (ISO) sensitivity for better low light and indoor pictures.
The TL500 provides a very impressive range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 100 to 3200. ISO 100 and ISO 200 images are essentially indistinguishable. Both settings show neutral colors, slightly hard native contrast and virtually no noise. ISO 400 images were also very good, but with a tiny bit less pop.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
At the ISO 800 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of detail. ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 images show flatter colors, reduced contrast and visible noise, but noticeably less noise than expected.
Additional Sample Images
Samsung digicams often provide better performance than their competition at the same price point and that's the case with the TL500. After carrying this nifty little digital camera with me just about everywhere I've gone for the last few weeks, the TL500 has replaced the Canon S95 as my benchmark (plus end of the grading curve) point-and-shoot.
The TL500 is obviously targeted towards advanced users, but this digicam offers much for mainstream shooters as well. The TL500 is user friendly with simple icon driven menus, a well designed Smart Auto mode, and an adequate selection of scene mode settings. The TL500 would be a good choice for couples (or families) with one advanced photographer and a casual shooter spouse or significant other.
The TL500 is a more than worthy competitor in the "compact prosumer point-and-shoot" marketing niche. If I were buying a digital camera today, the TL500 would be in the top spot on my short list.