The Samsung EX1


The Samsung EX1/TL500

A Step In The Right Direction


Following my deep technical analysis of the physics and limitations of digital cameras, I realised that compacts might be capable of the same image quality as SLRs, provided resolution was kept down and lens speed was kept high. In 2009 I bought a second hand Canon G5 (2003) to test this theory, since it had, on the face of it, the best specs of any compact ever made. Namely: An 1/1.8" 5 MP sensor offering a pixel pitch of 7.6 µm², an f/2.0-f/3.0 zoom lens and the ability to shoot raw. Sadly, it was not able to compete properly with my SLR due to its inefficient sensor, its slow processor and Canon's refusal to let DPP (its raw processing tool) process its raw output.

I was not dissuaded however, and continued to keep my eyes open for a modern version of this landmark camera. My interest was piqued again when I read a review of the Panasonic LX3 and examined the sample images. The fast f/2.0-f/2.8 lens was very attractive but I felt it wasn't quite long enough and it was clear from the samples that the sensor was a tad noisy. The G11 looked attractive, as did the S90, and I felt that their sample images were better than the LX3. Their lenses were not fast enough across the range however and I resolved to wait for something better.

In July 2010 Samsung announced their EX1 (TL500). It was built to outspec all competitors in the expert compact category, ie it was built to compete with the LX3 the S90 and the G11. I saw the specs and I thought: "Is this the one? Has someone finally built it?". The specs were great but the sample images on the net were somewhat underwhelming. I looked further however and found samples that WERE impressive and I realised that this was a camera that HAD to shoot RAW. I realised that this was the first camera of a line, and as such it would contain bugs and bad ideas, but it should, in theory at least, be capable of the best results of any compact around at the time. The only question was whether I could work around the bugs and get the quality images I expected.

I would have held off, but I was about to leave for a tour of Great Britain and I needed a camera that I could rely on to shoot landscapes. Non photographers have no idea of the workings of SIR autofocus detection units, or even that they exist, but the fact is, that when it comes to landscapes, SIR detectors will fail to focus correctly most of the time. All SLR cameras have SIR autofocus units as default, some also have contrast detect autofocus which is the type used by all compact cameras. My Nikon D60 does not have contrast detect autofocus and as a consequence is unsatisfactory as a landscape camera. Yes, I have managed to get some sharp results with it using manual focus, but this was as much due to good luck as it was to good technique. On reviewing my best landscape shots I found that most of them were taken with compacts and even my fixed focus camera phone! This was enough to push me over the edge and I decided to take a gamble on the unknown and buy this latest thing!

Here are the specs that made me buy the EX1:

The Lens

It is the LENS that offers a small sensor compact the chance to compete with a large sensor SLR for image quality. SLRs cannot produce a generally useful Depth Of Field below f/2.8, nor do they make SLR zoom lenses below this aperture. In fact, for general purpose photography, on a typical SLR using an APS sensor you will be using around f/5.6. Small format compacts exhibit generally useful DOF even below f/2.0. Not only that, but the lenses are smaller and cheaper than even the slower lenses for SLRs. A quality compact may have a pixel pitch just 1/8 that of an SLR which means it loses 3 stops of light gathering power, but if it has an f/2.0 lens compared to an f/5.6 lens on an SLR, it gets back those lost 3 stops and both cameras have the same theoretical image quality. That's theoretical folks, where all other factors are equal, which of course they're not, but it's a good start!

Bearing this in mind we can see that this camera's claim to greatness will live or die by its lens. The famous old German firm of Schneider Kreuznach stepped into the breach here and supplied this lens. It is a 3x zoom lens offering several steps between 24mm and 72 mm (35mm camera equivalent). This is the best focal range for a general purpose lens. It's wide enough to shoot groups of people indoors and wide enough to do impressive landscapes but it's also just long enough to get decent head shots. Naturally it has it's limitations and it would be nice to have some extra reach, but it is well known that 3x is about as far as you can push a fast zoom lens before you lose too much sharpness.

I subjected my EX1 to my famous Ulysses Blur Benchmark, (which is just a bunch of Joyce's text stuck on a wall) and scrutinised the results. Here is an example:

Ulysses Blur Test 36mm f/2.7

Samsung EX1 lens - Ulysses Blur Test: 36mm f/2.7 uncorrected - click to view full image

Ulysses Blur Test EX1 Ulysses Blur Test Tamron 17-50
The Samsung EX1 lens at its sharpest                                                      The Tamron 17-50mm DX at its sharpest
Barrel distortion

Barrel distortion: 24mm f/2.8 uncorrected - click to view full image

Lens correction none Lens correction Silky Pix Lens correction Lightroom
No correction                                                     Silky Pix correction                                           Lightroom correction

Schneider-Kreuznach should be congratulated for producing this lens. Whilst not tack sharp, it is remarkably consistently good over almost the whole range of focal lengths and apertures. Yes, it's not as good as a quality SLR lens of the same range, (for example the Tamron 17-50mm DX), but it's a LOT smaller and a lot cheaper. This is the fastest lens EVER put into a compact! f/1.8 to f/2.4 Kudos!

The Sensor

This is the best compact sensor going around at present (same as Canon S90 and G11) and I was pleasantly surprised by it's performance above base sensitivity. Due to the small sensor you can't expect it to compete with the sensitivity of an SLR, but I estimate the performance penalty to be no more than 2 stops over my D60, (and perhaps a bit less), whereas one would have expected 3 stops based on the size differential. Nice job Sony!

Having said that, 2 stops is 2 stops, and once you go beyond ISO 100 you will be able to detect some noise. How you chose to deal with it is up to you. Personally, I prefer to preserve fine detail and put up with the noise dots (especially at the low to middle ISO rates). Once you get to the high rates the noise becomes very intrusive and you may wish to introduce some smoothing. One thing you might try to avoid however is sharpening the noise!

ISO 80 crop ISO 200 crop ISO 400 crop
ISO 80 crop                                                     ISO 200 crop                                           ISO 400 crop
ISO 800 crop ISO 1600 crop ISO 3200 crop
ISO 800 crop                                                     ISO 1600 crop                                           ISO 3200 crop

As you can see, it's only at ISO 1600 that noise becomes REALLY intrusive, although ISO 800 is borderline. Remember that these are 100% crops, they look better at screen res. You'll need to shoot RAW though, to get these good results.

If you don't think these results are impressive, try comparing them to any other compact! Kudos Sony!


Here we come to the one area in this camera where image quality is seriously affected. This camera is prone to blowing highlights. Furthermore, because there is almost zero dynamic headroom even when you shoot raw, unless the blow out is very slight, chances are you won't be able to recover it, no matter what software you use.

Knowing this, you'd think that Samsung would have been careful with their metering, especially their pattern metering. Sadly no, their goal with pattern metering seems to be to get the whole image the same brightness on the screen as it is in real life, EVEN IF THIS MEANS A MASSIVE BLOW OUT! ... Wake up Samsung! This is digital, not analog, we can shoot raw and correct under exposure, don't let pattern metering allow a big blowout!

You can avoid a facial blow out by using spot metering on the face in question, or you can avoid a sky blow out by locking exposure on the sky and then reframing, and no doubt this is why Samsung put those 2 dedicated buttons on the back, but really, this shouldn't be necessary. This is the first camera I've used where the pattern metering has been so poor that I've had to resort to exposure lock or spot metering on a regular basis.

Blown Sky

An example of blown sky with pattern metering

I've read other reviews where they deplore the pathetic built in flash. Those reviewers are fools who don't understand proper flash usage. This camera's flash unit is ok for a compact. Sure, it's no Speedlite, but what do you expect? Set your ISO rate to 400, favour the telephoto end and you can get nicely balanced flash with good coverage to 4m and beyond, perfectly good for house parties and the like. Unfortunately the flash metering is poor... REALLY POOR! Too many shots when the flash is WAY overpowered and no flash bias adjust.

The metering goes some way towards damaging a really good camera. It's easily the worst metering I've come across. It's not acceptable Samsung and only an incompetent fool could have produced such a 3rd rate algorithm. Sack the man responsible!

Body & Controls

EX1 in my hand Small Hand Grip
Not practical to use the front roller with one hand.                     The lens cap protrudes FAR beyond the hand grip.

User Interface

Small Hand Grip

The processing screen and too many buttons.

Shooting Raw

As far as I'm concerned, if you don't shoot raw you're either incompetent or you don't care about the quality of your images. Raw files give you extra dynamic range over JPGs that you can use to reclaim blow outs and correct exposure accurately. They also give you proper access to the camera's white balance parameters rather than just the colour temperature adjustment you get with JPGs. There are also various other adjustments you will need to do in post processing to get the best images, that are either only available, or at least, best done, in raw.

Raw also avoids all the manufacturer's non-negotiable processing, like noise reduction and lens correction. These things may be fine at times but for the rest they ruin your images. This is especially true of this camera at higher ISO levels where Samsung's noise reduction smears away all the detail. The only way around this is RAW!

I shoot only raw and I will only buy a camera that offers raw. This was one of my criteria for buying this camera. Samsung's SRW format does the job but it fails to impress. I offer the following observations:

Highlight recovery Silky Pix Highlight recovery Lightroom
Highlight recovery with Silky Pix.                             Highlight recovery with Lightroom.


I was hoping for an SLR killer, and this is certainly a step in the right direction, but we are not there yet.

The efficient CCD sensor and fast lens allow the user to get low light performance as good as, and in fact, BETTER than, that of an entry level SLR with an f/5.6 kit lens. This is a commendable and useful result, however, it's not as good as an SLR with an f/2.8 zoom. Mind you, an f/2.8 zoom lens will cost you more than the entire price of an EX1, pouch and memory card included!

In good light the much larger pixel pitch of an SLR gives a richer, more natural image than the EX1. I suspect this may be due to the smaller electron well capacity of the smaller sensor. This means far smaller dynamic range, with a lack of detail and colour in the shadows and a tendency to blow out highlights. It is here that the most work needs to be done before we can throw away our SLRs.

The EX1 may not be quite an SLR killer yet, but it should be scaring the willies out of those bloated heavyweights as we speak! If the dynamic range can be improved, the lens sped up another stop and Samsung can fix the metering and iron out all their numerous stuff ups, bad ideas and oversights, we will have a tool that the keen amateur and the professional photographer can use with confidence for general purpose photography instead of an SLR.

In the meantime we have a first attempt by a new player that got the important things right and the other things wrong. If you know what you are doing and you can be bothered getting around all the irritations you will be rewarded with the best images obtainable from a compact digicam in a wide variety of situations. If you can't be bothered or don't need the extra speed, go buy the G11 or G12.

As for me: I'm happy with the image quality, I am confident in the AF, I can work around the irritations, and I will be taking it to Great Britain with me. No doubt you want to see the images I have been able to capture with this little black beastie... Eventually I will be adding some of my best EX1 photos to the galleries on this site but don't hold your breath. In the meantime you can check out my EX1 Picasa gallery here which I will be adding to from time to time. I've uploaded the full res so you can download the ones you're interested in and pixel peep to your hearts content.

As for you Samsung: The potential is there to create something great and game changing, however, you need someone with the right vision to make it happen. I am interested in the project and might be prepared to come on board as a design guru if conditions could be agreed upon. My email address is not hard to find.

Thank you for reading.

Warren Mars - August 2010


Since I wrote the above review I have returned from my tour of Great Britain, where I took around 2,000 shots in a variety of conditions. After such heavy usage pretty much everything I have said above remains true, but there are just a few things that I should add:

Yes, the above comments are all negative, but it is the negative things that a photographer needs to know about since they will impact on your everyday shooting, and it is the negative things that you won't hear about in the commercial reviews, since they are all in the pay of the industry, and the industry wants positive reviews.

To be fair, all the positive things I mentioned in the above review also remain true. The bottom line is that most of the shots I took turned out to be keepers and I AM very happy with the quality of those images. The camera was a perfect size to carry around everyday and it performed well in every situation I threw at it, with the exception of dark museums where the IS let me down.

The FAST lens was useful indoors where I was able to get good shots of people without the use of flash. YES, THAT LENS SPEED IS GREAT! This is where this camera really shines. This is where is beats its rivals, such as the G11/G12, the S90/S95 and the LX4/LX5. But is this useful speed advantage worth all the trouble of all the appalling oversights and mistakes? I guess it depends how much time you intend to be shooting indoors...

Warren Mars - November 2010