While everyone these days seems to be focused primarily on what happens in the DSLR and MILC worlds, I believe the most interesting new developments are in the massive expansion of P&S camera types. The very first point and shoot camera was the Kodak Brownie introduced in 1900 and, for almost 100 years, the P&S camera was the simplest and most inexpensive way to get into photography.
The digital imaging revolution changed all that. In less than two decades P&S cameras went from one basic type of device to several different types including ultra-compact point and shoot models, auto-exposure only standard compacts with 3x to 5x zooms, underwater P&S models, ultrazoom digital cameras, advanced point and shoots, and finally--my favorite--the travel zoom P&S digital camera.
Travel zooms look and handle like standard compact P&S digital cameras, but they feature extra long zoom lenses (typically 15x to 35x) and manual exposure options not included on their auto-exposure only compact P&S digital camera siblings. Samsung's new WB350F is a first-rate example of the P&S travel zoom digital camera. The WB350F is a 16 megapixel compact digital camera with a 21x zoom featuring a 1/2.3-inch BSI CMOS sensor, a 3-inch (460k) TFT touchscreen LCD monitor, HD (1920 x 1080p @ 30fps) video recording, full manual exposure control, and built-in Wi-fi and NFC connectivity.
Build and Design
At first glance, the 16 megapixel WB350F looks (and handles) like a typical point-and-shoot digital camera, but hidden under that mild mannered exterior is a much more competent imaging device. The WB350F's finish includes dust and moisture seals, as well as a nice looking leatherette appearance. In addition (and unlike its simpler siblings) the WB350F permits lots of individual input into the image making process via an enhanced feature set, plenty of creative flexibility, and the option to manually control exposure. The Samsung WB350F is available in White, Black, Brown, Red or Blue and priced at $300.00, but widely available for $249.00.
Ergonomics and Controls
The WB350F's user interface is logical and uncomplicated and, while this camera is a touchscreen model, it features a full complement of dedicated buttons, knobs, and switches--so users are never forced to rely strictly on the touchscreen to control camera operations. All controls are clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed by right-handed shooters.
The top deck is uncluttered with a classic P&S layout--on/off button, mode dial, larger than average shutter release button with zoom toggle surround and the pop-up flash. Along the beveled back edge of the top deck are the buttons for the "direct link" Wi-Fi and the flash activation button. The rear deck is also uncluttered and features a very traditional P&S digital camera layout. The 3.0" fixed LCD monitor takes up about two thirds of the rear deck. At the top of the right side of the rear deck is the textured thumb pad, and directly to the right of that is the one touch video start/stop button--perfectly positioned to start/stop video capture by simply rocking the right thumb back over the red button - without having to look away from the LCD screen. The compass switch (4-way controller) provides direct access to flash settings, macro mode, self-timer, and Display. Below the compass switch are the review button and the function button (which leads to a short-cut menu of commonly adjusted functions) and in review mode works as the delete button. The WB350F, like most travel zoom models, doesn't provide a hand-grip.
Menus and Modes
Smart Auto: Automatic scene recognition mode that instantly compares what's in front of the lens with an on-board database and then matches that information with the subject's distance from the camera, white balance, contrast, dynamic range, lighting and color (just before the image is recorded) to determine the best scene mode for that specific shooting situation. No user input except for flash on/off.
Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, flash, etc.)
ASM: - Which includes all manual exposure modes - Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed. Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an appropriate aperture.
Full Manual: Users select all exposure parameters.
Smart (Scene): Select the scene mode that best suits your subject
Best Face: Comprehensive Face Recognition mode.
Effects: Low Light, HDR, Split Shot, etc.
User Settings: User saved settings/preferences can be linked to this mode dial position
Wi-Fi: Use this mode to share your images.
Like most current P&S digital cameras, the WB350F doesn't provide an optical viewfinder. Users must rely instead on the 3.0 inch (460k) TFT monitor screen for all framing/composition, captured image review and menu navigation chores. Most P&S users 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 WB350F's monitor screen is bright, hue accurate, fluid and it automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers approximately 100% of the image frame. The WB350F's monitor, like all LCD monitors is subject to fading and glare/reflections in bright outdoor lighting - the WB350F suffers from above average glare/reflections in bright outdoor lighting. This framing and composition deficit could be easily corrected with a higher resolution LCD and better anti-glare/anti-reflection coatings on the LCD cover. The default display provides all the information this camera's target audience is likely to want or need.
For this price point, the WB350F is an above average general purpose/travel zoom camera that will dependably produce very good to excellent quality images and HD videos not only for travelers and photography enthusiasts, but also for straight-shooters, casual photographers, snap-shooters, and amateur shutterbugs as well. The WB350F's strong suit may be that it is an almost perfect choice as an intermediate camera step between a basic point and shoot model and a MILC or entry-level DSLR for those aspiring photographers on a budget who want the convenience and familiarity of a P&S digital camera, but crave some of the flexibility and control of a DSLR or MILC.
Auto exposure in the smart auto and program modes is dependably accurate and impressively quick. The WB350F features a fairly standard TTL Contrast Detection AF system with center AF, multi AF, tracking AF, and face detection AF. The 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. 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.
Push the WB350F's flash release button and the pop-up flash deploys with a funky little thump. The flash unit is at the top of a folding metal arm that raises the flash almost an inch above the camera's top deck--in addition the unit is positioned to the left of the center axis of the zoom--so red-eye problems should be substantially ameliorated.
The WB350F'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. The WB350F's pop-up flash lends itself to easy bounce lighting - simply calculate your bounce distance and hold the flash at the proper angle with the index finger of your left hand (while gripping the camera with the your other hand). This feature substantially increases the WB350F's portrait capabilities and subtracts nothing from its travel zoom capabilities. Based on my flash use, the SB350F's flash recycle time is between 3 and 4 seconds.
Image stabilization with a camera that provides a longer than average zoom is a particularly important feature - because it is virtually impossible to hold a camera with the zoom fully extended completely steady. The WB350F's optical image stabilization system reduces blur by rapidly and precisely shifting an element in the 21x 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 in situations where flash use would be obvious when viewing the image.
The WB350F's battery life/power duration numbers are about average for cameras of this type--310 exposures (according to Samsung) on a fully charged SLB-10A Lithium-ion rechargeable battery. 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 WB350F saves JPEG still images and HD video to MicroSD memory media.
When the WB350F is powered up, the 21x zoom telescopes from the camera body and when the camera is powered down, the lens retracts back into the camera body and a built in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is smooth, fairly quick, and relatively quiet - especially for such a long lens. The WB350F's long zoom and compact profile makes this camera an almost ideal choice for an incredibly broad variety of photographic applications, but its strongest appeal will probably be to weight and space conscious travelers.
There isn't much point to providing a longer than average zoom on a compact camera if the zoom isn't up to the job. Not so long ago, 10x was considered a long zoom so adding a 4.1mm to 86.1mm (23mm - 483mm equivalent) zoom takes the WB350F to a whole new level. That 21x optic allows WB350F users to stand in one spot and cover everything from grand vista wide-angle landscapes to super telephoto shots of not too distant wildlife.
The WB350F's f2.8 maximum aperture is easily fast enough for shooting outdoors, Shooting indoors and in dim light may provide more of a challenge since noise becomes a problem with this camera at sensitivities higher than ISO 400. Center sharpness is pretty good overall, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are noticeably soft. I didn't notice any vignetting (dark corners) and both barrel and pincushion distortion are visible, but appear to be well corrected. Contrast is slightly hard and colors are hue accurate, though visibly oversaturated. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well controlled, but color fringing is occasionally visible in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. Zooming is smooth, but fairly slow when compared to cameras with shorter zooms. Where lens noise is concerned--the WB350F is much quieter than expected. Images shot at longer telephoto settings grow consistently softer as the lens is zoomed further out, but still remain as sharp or sharper than most other cameras at this price point.
The WB350F captures HD video at 1920 x 1080p @ 30fps and the zoom can be used during video capture. This camera provides an HDMI out so that users can watch their HD video clips on their wide screen TVs.
The WB350F's image files are visibly oversaturated with slightly harder than average contrast. Images display very good resolution (sharpness) and essentially no noise up to ISO 400. Noise at sensitivities higher than ISO 400 gets progressively more obvious. The vast majority of P&S digital cameras boost color saturation -- reds are a bit too warm, blues are invariably brighter than they are in real life and greens/yellows are dependably vibrant--so the WB350F is in good company. The WB350F's images though visibly oversaturated are highly detailed and surprisingly sharp. Image quality is better than average for cameras in this class--as long as the user shoots at ISO 400 or lower.
While the WB350F compares nicely to most of its competition in terms of features and handling, the higher than average noise levels above ISO 400 might be a deal breaker for some potential purchasers.
The WB350F is a compact, well designed, sturdily built, and easy to use P&S digital camera with a 21x zoom and its strongest appeal will be to travel shooters, but this camera should also appeal to street shooters because it is compact, fast enough to capture the decisive moment, inconspicuous and non threatening to subjects, and capable of generating reliably excellent digital images.
The WB350F offers NFC (Near Field Communication) connectivity in addition to Wi-Fi connectivity. What is NFC? NFC allows users to create a link between a camera and a smartphone (or similar devices) to establish RF communication with the other like-minded devices by touching them together or bringing them into close proximity. The Samsung WB350F is fun to use and while it does have a couple of flaws, none of them are, in my opinion, deal breakers.