Samsung EX2F Review: Retro Street Shooter by Howard Creech -
My photographic heroes have always been "straight shooters" - documentary, street/candid, Natural/Available Light, and environmental portrait photographers. Famous straight-shooters used compact Leica 35mm rangefinder cameras to capture many of the iconic moments that defined 20th century history. The 21st century reincarnations of those classic rangefinders are small, feature rich, easy to use, and unobtrusive premium point and shoot digital cameras and compact camera systems. Samsung's EX2F may look like a typical compact point and shoot digital camera at first glance and it will function nicely as a point and shoot camera, but it was actually designed for "old school" straight-shooters and photo enthusiasts. Unlike the "auto exposure only" digicams currently dominating the P&S marketplace, it permits full manual control of exposure. In hand, the new Samsung EX2F (which replaces the popular EX1) evokes tactile memories of those classic Leica IIIFs and M4s. Artists, photo-journalists and investigative reporters, street shooters, documentary photographers, and enviromental portraitists will absolutely adore the EX2F's f/1.4 maximum aperture, which provides this elegant little digicam with the uncanny ability to capture beautifully textured and graphically realistic images in lighting that would severely challenge most cameras.
The Samsung EX2F currently sells for $369.
Build and Design The Samsung EX2F is an attractively understated camera with an 1/1.7-inch BSI CMOS sensor. It is small enough to be dropped in a jacket pocket and light enough to be used all day without fatigue. The EX2F features a robustly constructed magnesium body over a light-weight metal alloy frame. The EX2F's build quality is reminiscent of the precision machining and iconic mechanical engineering of premium quality German cameras from the fifties - it was clearly manufactured to withstand the rigors of heavy use. Most current point and shoot digital cameras come with a flimsy wrist strap, but the EX2F 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 ready to go - rather than in your pocket, or worse yet, at home.
The 12 megapixel Samsung EX2F is a well built imaging tool that was obviously designed for serious photographers. It is a somewhat "retro" looking little camera measuring 4.4 inches/112.1mm x 2.45 inches/62.4mm x 1.08 inches/27.55mm and weighing in at 11.2 ounces (318grams) with battery and SD card - the EX2F is slightly smaller and lighter than its predecessor. The EX2F features superb fit and finish, excellent dust/moisture seals, and a functional handgrip which provides better stability and camera handling.
Ergonomics and Controls
The EX2F'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. Along the top of the camera are the Power button, twin mode dials (one to select shooting mode and one to select drive mode), and the shutter release button (surrounded by the zoom toggle switch). On the front of the camera, just below the shutter button at the top of the handgrip (exactly where the index finger of the right hand rests naturally) is a control wheel which can be used to change various settings (depending on the exposure mode in use) like aperture or shutter speed. On the rear deck, above the compass switch, are the one-touch video and AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) buttons. Next are the menu and Fn (functions) buttons. Pushing the Fn button provides direct access to WB, image size, metering options, AF options, IS, etc. The EX2F's compass switch (4-way controller) provides access to flash settings, macro mode, Wi-Fi, and the display. Surrounding the compass switch is 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 discard/delete buttons. This control layout was designed by a serious photographer. I've never seen a better arrangement - the EX2F's controls placement permits users to manage power (on/off), mode selection, drive selection, zooming, menu navigation, initiate/stop video capture, and still image capture with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand -- without looking away from the LCD. The EX2F functions beautifully as a street camera. Simply put the camera in program mode, select auto white balance and auto sensitivity (ISO) and pretend for an hour or two that you are Henri Carier-Bresson or Robert Doisneau wandering the backstreets of Paris.
Menus and Modes When compared to the classic Leica rangefinders that inspired its creation, the EX2F's menu system may seem a bit much, but photography was much simpler back in the day and veteran 35mm film shooters didn't have nearly as many creative options as photographers do today. The Samsung EX2F features a user friendly (but unavoidably complex) menu system accessed via a dedicated button above the compass switch. The menus are logical and easy to navigate. I have repeatedly praised the EX2F's usability and the menu system is equally worthy of praise. The Samsung EX2F provides a complete selection of shooting modes including:
Smart Auto: The camera automatically selects all exposure parameters (except flash on/off) by analyzing the subject in the frame and then selecting the appropriate Scene mode for the subject and conditions.
Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, etc.).
Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects a shutter speed appropriate to existing conditions.
Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an aperture appropriate to existing conditions.
Movie: The EX2F records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1920x1080p @ 30 fps with stereo audio.
Wi-Fi: Allows users to connect a smart phone to the camera and then copy videos and still images to the smart phone for easy image sharing.
Display/Viewfinder Like most current P&S cameras the EX2F doesn't provide an optical viewfinder -- the EX1 offered an an optional OVF (that mounted in the hot shoe), but that option isn't available yet on the EX2F. Users must rely instead on the 3.0 inch (614,000 pixels) tilt-swivel camcorder style AMOLED monitor screen for all framing/composition, captured image review and menu navigation chores. Most modern shooters rarely use optical viewfinders even if they are present. And, in many shooting scenarios, it is actually quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the monitor screen than it is through an optical viewfinder. The EX2F's monitor 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 above the heads of the crowd, and, when not in use, turn the monitor inward to protect it from smudges and scratches.
The EX2F's monitor screen is bright, hue accurate, fluid (movement is smooth - not jerky), automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers approximately 100% of the image frame. The EX2F's screen, like all monitors is subject to fading and glare/reflections in bright outdoor lighting, but I didn't have any problem using the the monitor to frame and compose my images, even in bright outdoor lighting. The default info display provides all the data this camera's target audience is likely to want or need.
Performance The EX2F is a first rate general purpose point and shoot camera that will dependably produce excellent quality images and HD videos not only for photography enthusiasts and straight-shooters, but also for travelers, casual photographers, and snap-shooters as well.
Shooting Performance Auto exposure in the smart auto and program modes is consistently and dependably accurate and impressively quick. The EX2F reliably chooses the appropriate shutter speed in aperture priority mode and the appropriate aperture in shutter speed priority mode. In manual mode exposure accuracy is completely dependent on the skill and experience of the shooter.
The EX2F 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 EX2F's AF system analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera-to-subject distance when in default multi-AF mode to determine which AF point is closest to the primary subject. It then locks focus on that AF point. Press the shutter button half-way and the AF marks will turn green when focus is achieved or red if the AF system can't achieve focus. The 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 EX2F'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. The EX2F'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 flash exposure (+/- 2EV) 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 EX2F's flash recycle time is between 4 and 5 seconds.
Stabilizing a camera that was designed to shoot in very low light is particularly important and Samsung's product development folks rose to the challenge. The EX2F's optical image stabilization system reduces blur by rapidly and precisely shifting an element in the Schneider zoom 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. In really low light the dual IS option can be enabled which not only stabilizes the lens, but also boosts sensitivity and shutter speed to help shooters cope.
According to Samsung, the EX2F is good for about 260 exposures (without flash) or 130 minutes of video on a freshly charged 3.7 volt - 1,030 mAh SLB-10A rechargeable lithium-ion battery. That's about average for cameras of this class. 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 EX2F saves RAW, Jpeg, and HD video SD/SDHC/SDXC (and all versions of MicroSD with adaptors) memory media and provides 1GB of built-in image storage.
Lens Performance The EX2F's first-rate 3.3x true wide-angle to portrait telephoto zoom covers the focal length range most often used by "Straight Shooters" who tend to work in pretty close. The zoom was designed by legendary German lensmaker Schneider-Kreuznach and features a super fast f/1.4 maximum aperture (the fastest maximum aperture on ANY point and shoot), which makes it two full f-stops faster. It lets in four times as much light than the f/2.8 maximum apertures of the vast majority of current P&S cameras and 4.6 stops faster than the f/3.5 maximum apertures of most long zoom point and shoots. Faster lenses are, everything else being equal, better than slower lenses because they substantially increase low light/natural light options for serious photographers and provide marginally shallower depth of field. The EX2F will obviously come up a bit short for those who wish to shoot team sports or wildlife.
These environmental portraits of a fourth generation candymaker and a second generation Maple syrup maker showcase the EX2F's ability to get the picture -- even in lighting that would leave most point and shoots capturing dark, detailess, noisy, and blurry images.
When the EX2F is powered up, the zoom extends from the camera body automatically, once you remember to 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 EX2F purchasers -- I kept misplacing that tiny lens cap. Zooming is smooth and relatively quiet. The EX2F needs about 3 seconds to move the zoom lens from wide angle to telephoto.
The EX2F's Schneider zoom is amazingly good even though it displays some very minor corner softness 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 engineering. 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 filters and optional conversion lenses.
Video Quality The EX2F records HD video (MPEG-4 AVC/H.264) at 1920x1080p @ 30fps with stereo audio. The zoom can be used during video capture, but the sound of the lens motor will be recorded. Video clips generated by the EX2F are sharp, fluid, and hue accurate. The video clip that accompanies this review was shot in the late afternoon on a cold, snowy, overcast day.
Image Quality The EX2F's image files are clearly optimized for accurate real world colors and slightly hard contrast. Images display very good resolution (sharpness) with almost neutral colors and essentially no noise up to ISO 800. Viewed on my IBM monitor, images from the EX2F look a lot like the ISO 100 Agfa slides I shot while I was living in Germany. Most P&S cameras 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 like bright, bold colors. The EX2F's images are highly-detailed and surprisingly sharp with near neutral colors and good contrast. Image quality, across the board, is noticeably better than average for cameras in this class.
The EX2F provides users with a very good selection of White Balance options, including auto WB, daylight, Ccoudy, fluorescent 1, fluorescent 2, tungsten, and custom (manual WB). The EX2F's auto WB system does a very good job across the board, even under incandescent (tungsten) and fluorescent lighting.
The EX2F provides a very impressive range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to ISO 3200. ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 are available when ISO Expansion is activated with ISO 12800 limited to 3MP. ISO 80 through ISO 200 images are essentially indistinguishable. All three settings show almost neutral colors, slightly hard native contrast, and virtually no noise. ISO 400 images were also very good, but with a tiny bit less pop. At the ISO 800 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of fine detail. ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 images show flatter colors, reduced contrast and visible noise, but noticeably less noise than expected.
Additional Sample Images
Conclusion Samsung cameras often provide better performance than their competition at the same price point and that's the case with the EX2F. After carrying this nifty little digital camera with me just about everywhere I've gone for the last few weeks the EX2F is now my benchmark point and shoot digital camera. If you want to channel the spirits of some of the greatest photographers who ever lived, hang this elegant little Samsung camera around your neck and walk some urban avenues for an adventure in straight shooting.
The EX2F may look a bit retro and unergonomic, but it responds almost as if it were an extension of the photographer. In hand, the little EX2F feels just right. All controls are logically placed and come easily to hand. The EX2F's strongest appeal will be to straight-shooters because it was clearly designed for reactive photography. The EX2F is an almost perfect straight shooter's camera -- it is unintimidating to subjects, very responsive, and capable of dependably producing first-rate 12 megapixel RAW format digital negatives, jpeg image files, or HD video clips. The EX2F is obviously targeted towards advanced users, but this digicam offers much for mainstream shooters as well -- it is user friendly with icon driven menus, a well designed Smart Auto mode, and an adequate selection of scene mode settings. The EX2F would be a good choice for couples (or families) with one advanced photographer and a casual shooter spouse or significant other. After heavily using the EX2F for the past several weeks -- I award this snazzy little camera my highest rating.
Excellent Schneider zoom with a fast f/1.4 maximum aperture
Intuitive control layout
Very impressive noise mangement
Decent battery life
Easily usable by both beginners and advanced shooters