Samsung EX1 digital camera review

Is Samsung's high performance EX1 its best non interchangeable lens camera ever? Read our test to find out...

The 10-megapixel EX1 high-end digital compact from Samsung is built like a tank – not as regards size and shape, because it’ll squeeze into a jacket pocket, but rather strength. 

Gripped in the palm it feels robust and weighty, almost like you’re grasping a lump of pure solid metal. In that respect it brings one to mind of the attention to detail given to the build of a Leica; not a prestige brand normally mentioned in the same breath as Samsung, which has tended historically to focus on the low cost, value end of the digital camera market. 

At around £330 the EX1 is more expensive than any other Samsung compact too, but it literally feels like you’re getting something tangible back for your outlay. 

All bright on the night

The Samsung EX1’s target audience is undoubtedly the photo enthusiast who might otherwise be looking at a Panasonic DMC-LX5, Canon PowerShot S95, G12 or Nikon P7000. Basically a high end, premium priced compact.

So what do you get for your money? Well for a start a fairly modest 3x optical zoom, but one starting at an ultra wide 24mm, plus a lens that offers a brighter than average f/1.8 aperture with it, in combination with a 1/1.7-inch CCD sensor. There’s no automatic lens cover, so a clip-on cap is provided out of the box that you have to remember to remove before powering up the camera. Press the top mounted power switch and you can be lining up your first shot within two seconds.

On paper then the EX1 suggests itself as an able tool for natural/low light photography without flash, working well for interiors and spotlighting shadow detail. Thus here we can shoot up at up to ISO3200 at full resolution, a setting at which many compacts effect a resolution drop to limit the visibility of noise/grain. To counteract hand wobble and possible image blur in such conditions the lens is supported by both optical and digital image stabilisation.

A modest rubber surfaced grip is provided to right hand side of the camera, and the lens surround has a roughened surface should you wish to hold it with your left for added support. With the lens barrel sitting slightly proud of the camera body it feels as though this should either be detachable, incorporate a manual focus, zoom or function ring – the latter a feature of Canon’s S95 – but it stays steadfastly fixed in position.

The control layout looks quite busy at first – especially with not one but two top mounted dials sitting just behind the shutter release button encircled by the lever for the zoom – but is in fact easily and quickly navigated. That’s largely because having dedicated buttons for key functions such as switching from single shot to burst shooting, or changing ISO setting, saves otherwise delving into menu screens to do likewise. Incidentally the menus here are also clearly laid out so shouldn’t confuse the non photo enthusiast who just wants to pick the EX1 up and start shooting in the first instance.

Flash in the cam

As a belt to the above braces the EX1 does actually feature a flash for low light shooting, here of the pop up variety sunk unobtrusively into the top plate and summoned to action manually with a slide of the switch located just behind. Next to it also sits a hotshoe for accessory flash, likewise sunk into the top plate to maintain clean Panasonic GF1-like lines.

Samsung’s traditional expertise isn’t in camera lenses however, but rather display screen technology. The brand was one of the first to introduce AMOLED displays to its range, offering deeper blacks and more vivid colour than conventional LCDs, and here there’s a 3-inch AMOLED screen that, unusually for a camera this compact, also rotates and swivels to allow pictorial compositions from a variety of otherwise awkward angles. 

Alternatively it can be flipped to face inwards to the body for protection when the camera’s inactive. Without doubt it’s a handy feature, and everything on it at least looks magnificent. The difference between it and a standard LCD is like moving from an old cathode ray set to a new HD flat panel. In lower light it appears so bright and so vivid that your eyeballs begin to hurt trying to take it all in.

Gonna make u sweat

This being the stuff that makes enthusiasts’ palms sweat, the EX1 allows shooting in unprocessed Raw format as well as humble JPEG. That said, the camera still features the Smart Auto technology from its maker’s more humble point and shoot compacts, that, with its scene and subject recognising capabilities, allows users to utilise it just like any other snapshot if desired. Fire off a shot and a full resolution ‘Super Fine’ quality JPEG is committed to memory in a second, or move to one of the quartet of creative modes – program, shutter priority, aperture priority or manual shooting – and shoot in Raw without much of a noticeable drop in speed at all. Raw and Super Fine JPEGs can also be shot in tandem.

Smart Auto can be deployed when shooting both stills and video – here surprisingly modest at 640x480 pixels, if with a respectable transitional rate of 30 frames per second. It’s as if Samsung, like makers of specialist compacts such as Sigma (DP2) and Leica (X1), is indicating that true photographers won’t be bothered much with video anyway, so why would lack of HD capture be an issue? 

Despite that though Samsung has provided a dedicated record button, which is handy. Though as it’s located where your thumb would normally fall when gripping the camera in your right hand, we found it easy to activate recording accidentally. There is also HDMI output at the side, making the fact that it doesn’t shoot HD video even more acutely annoying.

Beauty and the beast

Although it might be pitched at those who take their photography deadly seriously, there’s also a light-hearted side to the EX1. Thus we get attendant Samsung compact series regulars such as a skin smoothing and blemish removing ‘beauty mode’ digital filter, as well as the slightly less flattering fish eye, located with a press of the ‘fn’ (function) button at the backplate which brings up a comprehensive toolbar of tweakable options down the left hand side of the screen. Each becomes highlighted as you tab through them, with a single sentence description of their function provided.

The Samsung EX1 is therefore both feature-packed and approachable at the same time. If anything it’s rather too responsive to each button press and dial twist as it’s easy to over shoot certain settings when scrolling through to find the one you want. Still this is much preferable to sluggishness.

Despite its low light claims though, images are just as noisy as any other high-end compact when shooting at ISO800 or above, which is to say grain is visible above ISO400, though admittedly even at ISO3200 top setting it’s not at ruinous levels. And of course we do get to shoot full resolution shots at maximum ISO, which are usable - which isn’t always the case. 

Of course there are inevitably some caveats: there’s a tendency for the Samsung to lose detail in the highlights, purple pixel fringing is as problematic for it as any other snapshot camera between areas of high contrast, and there is some barrel distortion at maximum wide angle, albeit minimal. We did however love the colours achievable on ‘normal’ setting, the lens is sharp, and Smart Auto seemed a reliable fall back position when you’d rather concentrate on your subject and point and shoot than fiddle with settings; if it could have deployed a faster shutter speed on occasion for those low light shots we’d have been even more impressed.

Though we’re writing this before taking a look at its new NX100 model, the EX1 has got to be the most impressive digital camera Samsung has produced to date, whether true compact or DSLR-styled mirror-less hybrid model. OK, so it’s not set itself as high a previous benchmark as the likes of Nikon and Canon, but with the EX1 the Korean giant at least shows that it can compete with the big boys of photography when it wants to. Interesting that it’s now the electronics manufacturers – and we include Panasonic with its LX5, which for us just edges ahead – that are now pushing the envelope.