Thursday 14 January 2010

Samsung WB5000 (HZ25W) camera review

(Albeit very short, not to mention unprofessional)

OK, for starters I won't go into technical details. You can find those as well as camera shots on Samsung's camera page.

I have taken one single photo of the camera with my old Canon S2 IS, which shows the lens cap (not shown on any of Samsung's images).

Why I bought this camera:
On paper it looks really impressive:
12 megapixels
24x zoom and down to 26mm (equivalent)
A huge 3" display
It's own li-ion batteries (Trust me, having used S2IS for 4 years, this was a HUGE bonus)
Supports all picture formats (4:3, 3:2 and 16:9) out of the box
Records HD movies (720p/30)
Very light (only 400g)
Relatively small for a camera with 24x zoom (116 x 83 x 91mm)

Personal reasons: Since I'm a very poor photographer I usually buy cameras that are capable of forgiving my mistakes with apperture, exposure and similar settings. So I buy cameras with capable optics and fairly powerful processors. However, even this can't save me from utterly sucking at image composition :)

So I took the camera for a spin these last two days since I got it. Sorry, no fine weather pics at the end of this article. Only night shots / overcast diffuse light day ones.
On the other hand, these are the exact conditions for which one such as me would buy such a camera: the shots have to be good even at imperfect light conditions.

But let's go into some more obvious features first:

As I already stated, the camera is quite small for one with such impressive optical capabilities. This also shows on the body design: Most of the camera's size is taken by optical assembly which is very nicely complemented by a top mounted popup flash (no external flash hot shoe though).
I would have liked it better if the lens cap was attached to the body. As it is, it's a matter of when, rather than if, the cap will be lost.

The only thing that stands out of the case a bit awkwardly is the electronic viewfinder, but this is a matter of taste rather than anything else. It can get in the way sometimes like if you're used to putting your camera in the carrying bag lens-up. The viewfinder has a diopter adjustment knob which will be very necessary since it's so small that you need to have your eye very close to it to see clearly. Otherwise the image displayed is clear and bright enough. Switching between main and EVF display is done manually through a dedicated EVF button. There are three display modes in all: minimal (only shows battery level, number of shots left and apperture / shutter parameters if applicable), Normal - shows the above plus major shooting parameter selections and detailed which adds a grid and histogram. Grid modes available are + (screen split horizontally and vertically), 3x3 which divides the screen 4x4, x - diagonal screen split - and 2x2 which divides the screen into 3x3 grid.

The non-slip rubber coated hand grip is designed well and fits the palm very nicely. You will need a bit of thumb dexterity to reach the lower buttons with right thumb though.

At the bottom there's a latch for battery and SD(HC) card compartment. This can be quite annoying since you must close the latch after taking out SD card to copy it to the computer in order to put the camera down again. I think it would be better if the latch was on the right side.

On the left side there's a mini HDMI jack under a cover which serves for battery charging, USB connection to computer and video output (to TV - analogue only supporting NTSC or PAL formats). Don't let the connector format deceive you - this camera does not provide digital connection to the TV.

The menus are simple and easy to understand and use. They are a bit divided though. You can only set flash parameters by pressing the flash button on the case, for example.
There isn't enough options in some cases though. My biggest gripe with this was that date formats only support "/" as separator and clock is only available in 12h format (am, pm), no 24h clock, no sir!

Overall the camera seems to be built well and handles great. You'll have no problem shooting movies or photos for extended periods of time due to its light weight.

Camera shooting modes
The camera features a mode dial with plenty of mode selections, though their actual differences are rather limited:
1. SmartAuto - Everything is selected by camera automatically. You can't even select image format used for capture. Instead, last used image format from one of the programmable modes will be selected.
2. Movie mode - This mode allows you to set movie parameters (resolution, frame rate, effects and sound recording parameters). It is only here you can select movie parameters, no other mode or menu offeres these settings. Otherwise it's useless since there's a dedicated "record" button on the body which starts movie recording in any of the other modes.
Available resolutions are 1280x720, 640x480 and 320x240.
Frame rate selection provides 15, 30 and 60 FPS options with 60 only available for 320x240 resolution.
Audio options include recording, no audio and no audio when zooming (more on this later)
3. Scene mode is the same as Smart Auto except that it allows you to set shooting parameters mode yourself. Provided modes are: Frame guide (precomposed scenes), Portrait, Children (fast moving), Landscape, Macro, Text (scanner replacement), Sunset, Dawn, Backlight (for shooting towards the light source - perfect for my composition abilities), Fireworks and Beach&Snow (super strong lighting conditions)
4. Beauty shot - Especially suited for portrait shooting. Only in this mode do you get some quite nice options for automatic face retouching:
Face tone (brightens faces)
Face retouch (removes face imperfections) - tested on my teenage daughter who has quite severe dermal anomalies, this really works and works great! It takes the camera about 10 seconds to process the image though.
Unfortunately for everything else, this mode is fully automatic as well.
5. Night - One more fully automatic mode. The camera suggests that tripod use is recommended. I have no idea in what way this mode is different to Smart Auto.
6. User 2 - A fully programmable mode. Camera will remember all parameters set. You cannot select any of the previously mentioned exclusive parameters like face retouch though.
7. User 1 - Same as User 2 mode
6. Manual - Also same as both previous modes.
7. Apperture - shutter priority - Again, a completely same mode as the previous three. You can adjust all shooting parameters (except the exclusive ones).
Adjusting Apperture and Shutter arameters is a bit tricky though: It is done by the central round dial, which also serves for display mode selection, flash parameters, macro shooting and timer. By rotating the dial, you increase or decrease the currently selected parameter (either apperture or shutter). It's changing the currently selected parameter where things get interesting: If you just press the dial, nearest of the four basic functions will be activated. You have to press it while rotating the dial. Doing so changes the current parameter though. Oh well, seems it takes a bit of getting used to. After two days of use I wasn't getting much better at this...
8. Programmed mode - In this mode you can modify all shooting parameters except for exclusives, apperture and shutter. The latter two are selected automatically by the camera.

OK, This is about what I had to say on general camera design. Please see the manual (it's downloadable from the samsung site above) for menu contents and more available options.
Let's rather proceed with the evaluation as it went in these last two days. I shall begin with video:

Video shooting
I was really looking forward to the 720p video shooting with this camera. As I'm using such cameras also for movie shooting, rather than a dedicated video camera, I needed this particular function to give me some high quality video. I would have liked an option for 25FPS shooting, but 30 is just as good.
Video format (720p) is as follows:
Video codec: H264 Baseline, level 3.1, 9126 Kbps@29.97FPS
Audio codec: AAC 128Kbps 48KHz stereo (camera has two mics)
Container: MP4

The camera takes just over 1MB per second of 720p video shot. A test video of 25 seconds thus ended up at 28,5MB. I had to transcode it to avi because Blogger won't take mp4, and then Blogger transcoded it again to much lower res :( But the issues below are still visible / audible. Just watch this and you'll see my dissappointment:

Exposure sucks big time. Whenever light changes, camera takes ages to adapt. My 4 years old S2 IS does way better than this.
Zooming in/out produces an annoying noise and quite loud at that. Again, a 4 yeard old camera does way better.
Also focus is getting lost all the time. This camera really has a hard time focusing.
And finally: Overall movie quality doesn't look like 720p. It just lacks definition. I mean, the pixels are there, but overall feeling isn't.
Sound seems to be OK though. OK, one gripe: I don't like how it catches my voice from behind. It should focus more on sounds in front of it.

Trust me, I've shot more than this movie and all are about the same. Zooming is more or less out of the question. You either have the servo noise or mute if you set the camera to mute when zooming. Don't know which of these is more annoying. Movies shot in daylight are a bit better visually, provided no zooming is used.

Movies: major disappointment.

Photo shooting
With 12 MP this camera should capture images with great detail without breaking a sweat. And it does, if you put some effort into it.

The camera takes about 3 - 6 MB per JPEG image (super fine) and about 18MB per RAW image. Both at max resolution 4000x3000 (12MP). Camera's internal memory can take 3 JPEGs and not even a single RAW.

Warning: Blogger resized all of the pictures. I didn't even bother to verify EXIF info after that. :(

I started out with some general shots to see how it handles apperture and exposure.
Here's the first and second:

The first picture was taken with SmartAuto mode. Parameters of note: ISO 200, F/2.8, 1/30 sec.
For the second pic I played around with shutter and ISO: ISO 64, f/2.8, 1/640 sec.
My head started hurting already. Is this really so? Can the camera overexpose shots by such a wide margin? I can't even figure out how the first shot isn't all white. I mean, if it took more than 20 times the time at higher ISO sensitivity, how can the second picture not be completely black?

So I stepped on the balcony and took a nice night shot:

Parameters: SmartAuto, ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/2 sec. Click on the image, see for yourself: ISO 400 produces serious noise. So much noise in fact that it's pretty much useless.

I took an additional couple of shots to see how the camera takes lighting with / without flash:
The left picture with flash (ISO 64, F/2.8, 1/30sec), the second without (ISO 320, F2.8, 1/10 sec). Obviously, automatic tungsten lighting is not recognized. Still need to select it manually.

Next I took a couple of detail shots to see how the camera handles detail:
Here the camera passed the test. Both of these pictures were taken from more than 1m distance.
All detail is clearly visible and letters easily readable.
This camera can pass for a low res scanner any time.

I went out to town to see how it can handle detail at night:
Both of these were taken at ISO 200. The first has exposure time set at 1/60 sec, the second at 1/30 sec.
Note how even ISO 200 produces quite significant noise. It is clearly visible at 100% zoom on a computer monitor.

Next test was flash range:
I must say: This camera has one insane flash. Its range is enormous for such a small unit.
If you look at right pisture: right border is about 8m away from the house, the lamp under lit window is about 15m away from the camera.
I'm estimating this flash can reach as far as 12 - 13 meters.

The next day I went out and took a few outdoors pictures to see how detail is handled in daylight (albeit poor due to overcast weather):

I think these images show all the best in this camera. Detail is high, colors represent what I was taking pictures of. I can see no optical anomalies in the pictures taken, either color mismatches nor any noise. The kid on the sled on the second picture was shot with a huge zoom (18x) and was moving quite fast. Still I think the image is clear enough.

However taking some closeups like the grass above was giving me huge problems: the camera had serious issues focusing on my subjects of choice. Especially when I was using zoom (any zoom), the camera display typically showed a very blurry picture which cleared up only when I half pressed the shutter button. Sometimes I couldn't even manage that. Though Samsung clearly states focus distances on the camera product page (link at start of this article), I never thought the issues with that would be so severe. The following two shots demonstrate the problem:
The coca cola bottle is perfectly clear and sharp. It was about 60-70cm away from the camera.
Moving just 20-30cm closer to the beer glass (about 40 cm distance), the camera couldn't manage to auto focus it no matter what I did.
Manual focus was the only solution here.

I had high hopes for this camera, but could find no reviews for it since it's a new item. As it turns out, you will have to work for your images a bit if you want them to be good. The camera can take extremely nice shots, but certain situations are just too much for its optics / firmware.
The camera also sports some nice functions like face retouching and shooting scenarios which are nice for a casual photographer, but such functions are better suited to an ultra compact, not this camera.
Camera likes to use 1/30 sec shutter speed. It will play it safe with this shutter speed for far too long. One can still take pictures at lower ISO settings and much shorter shutter speeds, but that needs manual adjustment. Sensitivity not definable in menus so you'll be stuck with this. The pictures produced are fine, but not great at automatic settings.
When all is said and done, if you like playing around with settings and you have patient family / friends, you will take great photos with this camera, but for point and shoot operation it will have issues, especially indoors.
Movie shooting is completely unacceptable though. Focus, ISO adjustment and most of all - zoom servo noise are all significantly worse than on a much older Canon PowerShot S2 IS. I will go as far as saying that the S2 shots better movies at 640x480 than this camera does at 720p.
I am now returning the camera to the retailer. It's just not worth the money for me. Sorry.

The good:
  • Nice pictures at ISO <= 100
  • RAW (takes 3 secs to store though)
  • HD movies using H264 + AAC codec
  • Super powerful flash
  • Light
  • Huge screen
  • Easy to use menus
  • 24x zoom
The bad
  • ISO 200 and above introduce significant noise
  • Likes to overexpose (auto modes)
  • Has issues with focusing
  • The bottom SD card slot
  • Likes to use ISO higher than needed
  • No digital TV connection
The ugly
  • Movies extremely poor due to slow ISO / focus adjustments and especially due to servo noise