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Samsung TL500: A compact tool for serious photographers

Compact cameras come and go, but few stand out from the crowd quite like Samsung's new TL500 (known as the EX1 outside of the U.S.). Your first clues that this camera offers something different are stamped right on the front of the camera: "10.0" means Samsung held back the number of megapixels to 10, and the large "F 1.8" indicates the TL500 boasts a bright, f/1.8 maximum aperture.

The Samsung TL500, née EX1, prints its standout features right on the front.

Photographers have long lamented the fact that camera makers kept trying to cram more and more pixels into the same tiny sensors — as pixels get smaller, they gather less light. With small-sensors, image quality degrades quickly as available light fades and higher sensitivity (ISO) is needed. Samsung has wisely held back the pixel count in the TL500, just as competing cameras like the Canon G11, Canon S90, and Panasonic LX3 have done. This means that the pixels that are there can be bigger and gather more light.

Likewise, a large maximum aperture lets more light hit the sensor, giving those hard-working pixels a better chance to record your image. And Samsung's f/1.8 is the fastest lens available on a compact camera right now. This means that the TL500 can shoot a shot in dim light at ISO 400 that most other cameras would need a noisier ISO 800 to capture. This is the biggest advantage the TL500 provides. That f/1.8 maximum aperture is at the 24mm wide-angle end of the zoom, but even zoomed all the way in the aperture remains a pretty fast f/2.4. That's great for blurring backgrounds and bringing attention to your subject.

The TL500 with its cute pop-up flash.

Speaking of zoom, the TL500 doesn't give you much: it's a "3X" 24-72mm equivalent. Those who are addicted to zoom may find that troubling, but I'm just the opposite. I like wide angle. Camera manufacturers act like they're doing you a big favor if their compact camera has a lens that starts at 28mm wide (not many do), so the 24mm at the TL500's wide end is more than welcome. But what about the other end of the spectrum? The TL500's 72mm telephoto is nothing to write home about, right?

I say it's fine. The TL500 starts out wide, and zooms in to a desirable focal length for portraits. It's not going to get you close to a skittish bird, but it does what it does very well. The more zoom capability a lens maker has to deal with, the more compromises are made that degrade image quality. By going wide and taming the zoom range, Samsung and Schneider have equipped the TL500 with a very high-quality lens.

From the side, lens extended.

In-hand, the TL500 feels solidly built, with appropriate heft. There's a nice little grip on the right side which makes it easy to hold. This is not a camera that fits in a shirt pocket; you'll probably need a strap to carry it. But it's considerably smaller than any DSLR, and feels smaller than the mirrorless "hybrid" cameras.

Shown with lens cap; not shown is that Samsung provides a string to attach the cap to the strap lug.

On back is a nice AMOLED screen — not sure what that means, but the bottom line is that it's sharp, colorful & contrasty. Photos you take have a tendency to look better on the screen than anywhere else (at least before you massage them in a photo editor). The screen can swivel out, then twist 270 degrees — enough for shooting at waist level, overhead shots, and even a handy self-portrait. And you can flip the screen face-in for when you're walking around and don't want to bump it against anything. Since there's no optical viewfinder, a swiveling screen becomes very important.

The screen tilts and swivels, hooray!

Dials! I love them. I hate menus. I like to make adjustments without looking, the better to react quickly when shooting. The TL500 was definitely designed for photographers, because the single most important shooting adjustments can be made using the little wheel on the back and the little wheel built into the grip. They take on different uses in different shooting modes — for instance, in manual mode the rear wheel adjusts aperture while the front dial changes shutter speed. In Program mode, the front dial changes exposure compensation. I'd prefer top-mounted dials, but I definitely got used to the TL500's layout with a little use.

The ever-useful front dial is hiding in the grip.

The little wheel on the back, like those found in other cameras, is a bit flimsy and easy to turn inadvertently. I found myself placing the ball of my thumb in the little blank spot above the menu button while shooting, but I did manage to change the ISO accidentally a few times while the TL500 was bouncing around a cargo shorts' pocket.

Video in the TL500 is hit-or-miss...on the one hand, shooting video is easy: simply tap the red button in the upper-right corner, and you're shooting a video. If you lock the exposure with the "AEL" button (just above the video button), you won't get those flickers as you pan through a scene with variable lighting. That's really nice both because it's easy, and because you can take advantage of the TL500's fairly quick autofocus before you start shooting. What's not so good, though, is that video is limited to a standard 640x480, no HD. Not a deal-breaker for me, but it's worth noting.

Since the internet loves bulleted lists, here are the TL500's pros and cons as I see them after a few weeks of shooting. Remember, I'm just one person and I am pretty specific in what I look for in a camera. For me, a lot of it comes down to ergonomics, and your mileage may vary. Despite any cons listed below, I consider the TL500 to be a breath of fresh air in the compact market.

Pros:

  • f/1.8 - f/2.4 max aperture is the fastest available on a compact
  • 10 megapixels
  • 24mm wide angle lens
  • great tilt-swivel screen
  • can shoot RAW*
  • hot shoe for attaching a flash
  • most of the important shooting controls are accessible though dials
  • solid build, with a built-in grip
  • fairly simple menu system

Cons:

  • lens cap (I don't like them, it's just me)
  • flimsy rear wheel can be knocked easily
  • doesn't come with a proper charger - instead, you get a USB cord with a proprietary connector. You can either plug it into your computer, or use the included adapter to plug it into the wall. But it's only a foot long and requires you to use the camera as a charger. Not too useful if you go for an extra battery.
  • no optical viewfinder
  • not great for macro (closeup) work
  • screen is maybe a little too good

No camera is perfect; I've shot with a ton of them, and even the ones I like leave me wishing it did this or that a little differently. Despite its minor shortcomings, I really liked the TL500. Its fast, f/1.8 aperture, superb 24mm lens, amazing, tilt/swivel screen, and fairly easy shooting controls make it a real winner. It's not a camera that throws a lot of fluff features at you, just what you need to make great pictures. If you're a semi-serious shooter who knows how to drive an SLR, the TL500 might be the compact camera you've been waiting for.

* I shot mostly jpegs while evaluating this camera. Since the TL500 is a new camera, its RAW files are not yet supported by Adobe or Aperture. This is normal, it happens with every new camera, and lasts until the next software update (usually a few months later). Why? Because camera manufacturers stubbornly come out with a new RAW format with each camera, rather than adopt Adobe's universal DNG format. Pretty pretty please, camera makers, can we stop this madness?

Here are a few shots I made with the TL500/EX1 while I had it (click on each image to enlarge).

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