Samsung EX1 compact camera
Robust, retro, low light performer
Review While Samsung’s NX100 APS-C sensor camera is making life difficult for those deciding on compact EVIL shooter, the company’s considerably cheaper EX1 is beginning to look like a bargain these days. Shop around and you can pick it up for under £300. The EX1 isn't an interchangeable lens model but its 24mm f1.8, 3x zoom is certainly a winner in low light, with Samsung making claims that it’s the world’s brightest lens on a compact.
Optical drive: Samsung's EX1
That lens has the words Schneider-Kreuznach on it. I used to use SK lenses in my black and white enlarger, and jolly good they were too. The body of this beast has the f1.8 emblazoned on it and evidently, Samsung is pretty pleased with this fact. It is a very worthwhile selling point. A fast lens delivers pin sharp detail, perfect contrast and no cheap special effects like vignetting and colour shifts in the corners. Oh no, wait you can add that in as an in-camera special effects treatment – more on that later.
Well now that might be all good if there was any sort of a decent sensor behind it, and there lies the rub. At 1/1.7in, like Canon’s G12, the EX1 lingers in smallville, when micro four thirds and larger sensors are fast becoming the norm in sophisticated compacts. Indeed, it belongs to an earlier generation of camera class and while 10Mp isn’t bad, as other manufacturers have plateaued here too, I still wouldn't write it on the front like it was a selling point. I mean, it is written on the casing, not on a removable sticker, which also smacks of retro too.
Still, the Samsung EX1 is a proper heavy duty, sexy looking, well dressed capable 'compact' even though its weight and bulk are somewhat at odds with that description. It has a great 3in AMOLED screen that protects itself with articulation, and can sit way off to the left. When shooting, the information appears well laid out, and overall you get a bright image showing on the display, even in strong sunlight.
The Mode Dial gives you the usual PASM, also Smart, Video, Scene and its Dual image stabilisation function. I think having the Dual IS choice is a pretty good idea, for when you are out of options on all the other parameters and have to just trust the cameras technology to deliver. The other dial up top is for your Single Frame, continuous and timed exposure and for turning the camera on.
Modes aplenty, but manual tweaks deliver the best results
With the screen in closed position, the very cool blue light would be the only thing to give away that this camera wasn't from a very credible German past. It really does look the business. When people saw it they assumed it was a much more technical camera than it is. Maybe this is its main appeal? Nice legs, shame about the face.
I love the fact that the EX1 offers an 80 ISO setting – harking back to a time where 1/3 stop difference in film sensitivity meant something. Here, I suspect it is un-noticeable, but clearly classy. A lens cap too. Oh dear, that isn't going to last too long. But again harks back to a simpler time, when lenses were not auto focus, and didn't need 2secs to get ready.
The articulating LCD panel gives good results even in bright sunlight
The EX1 also shoots RAW, but alas, not a RAW format that programs like Adobe’s Lightroom understand. It’s Samsung’s own variant and the company provides its own RAW converter software to allow images to be saved as TIFF or JPEG files. Still, if you are shooting in RAW the supplied software does deliver, provided you have a Windows PC. Mac users would be advised to stick to shooting JPEG files.
When shooting, the controls are in great places – your thumb can operate the wheels on top, your forefinger the shutter wheel on the front. Aperture is the wheel on the back, which is a bit flimsy though. One quick feature is the Fn button, which will get you to the options available in your Mode. Be it white balance, face detection or picture quality. There is a dedicated button on the back for jumping between the metering modes – always good to have that as an option.
Admittedly, I started off using this camera in full auto and wasn't impressed with its operating speed. So much so, that I didn't want to pick it up and take it places. But boy did I need to delve a little deeper. The manual mode alone with this lens is enough to try this camera out.
Forget flash, even though it has a pop-up, you won’t need it. With a little bit of prep time you can get everything perfect. While noise inevitably creeps in the higher you go, the EX1 delivers respectable shots at ISO 800 – it maxes out at ISO 3200 – and if you can't make use of the effective four stops of light you get with the lens, then stop shooting in no light.
Flash is there if you really need it
There are some nice trick effects including fisheye and miniature which are great fun. The other treatments: sketchy, negative and the colour shifts are dreadful. I can't imagine why they are on here. Surely this style of in-camera editing belongs on a phone camera, where you can share images immediately.
As for video, it shoots in H.264 but only does 640 x 480 at 30fps. I think you may as well have left that off guys. Missing the HD boat is like saying, it's only for purists, who are stills through and through. It’s an excuse that doesn’t wash these days.
Performs well if you're prepared to take it out of auto mode
If you're keen to take a trip back in time, it also does 320 x 240 and can go as low quality as 15fps – it's like the 90's in here. Even so, it is really easy to switch to capture footage, as there’s a dedicated button on the back. I also like the fact that it charges with the lithium-ion battery on-board. For me it’s a good thing, as it is one less figure of eight cable and little black box to recognise amongst all the others. Samsung claims a battery life of around 120mins or 240 shots which is about right if you're not glued to LCD panel spending ages poring over each shot.
Built like you remember the most expensive rangefinder cameras of old, the EX1 is a heavy, armoured beauty in gun metal grey and is the most rugged camera I have picked up. What must have started out as an enthusiast’s retro styled project, must quickly have become something that Samsung said, “OK, better include these functions as well…”
Indeed, the EX1 allows creative control with respectable noise levels, given its smallish sensor. It manages to take SLR, wide open aperture type images that look great, but only if you choose to override everything and get the most from the bright end of the camera’s excellent lens. If you’re happy to keep it out of auto, then the only real shortcomings are it is a little slow in operation and can't do 720p video. Maybe next time. ®
James Cumpsty  is a professional photographer and videographer working in the music industry.
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