SLR-style camera with giant LCD and 15X optical zoom
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer; photography by Carol Cotton Walker)
Like other cameras of its kind, the Samsung Pro815 is often mistaken for a digital SLR. Measuring 6.1 x 5.4 x 3.4 inches it's certainly as big as a SLR and definitely looks like a SLR down to the overall design and matte-black body, but it's not a single lens reflex. Instead, it is what we call a fixed-lens SLR-style camera, the difference being that SLRs use a movable mirror which lets the photographer look directly through the lens and thus see precisely what the lens will capture whereas SLR-style cameras do not have such a mirror system. "Real" SLRs have replaceable lenses so that the photographer can select just the right one for a particular situation or shot whereas non-SLR digital camera come with a lens that cannot be replaced. And instead of seeing the picture directly through the lens with a mirror, you use an LCD and sometimes an optical or electronic viewfinder to see approximately what the lens sees.
SLR-style cameras like the Samsung Pro815 are somewhere in-between. They look like SLRs, probably intentionally to suggest similar features and performance but also because they usually include a big long-zoom lens giving them the characteristic SLR shape. However, you cannot exchange the lens. You can "see" through the lens, but not via a mirror system but through an electronic viewfinder. That works just fine, but even a very high resolution electronic viewfinder can't replace what you see in a real mirror. Before you dismiss this approach, consider that there are advantages to it. SLR users must generally carry a bag full of different lenses whereas SLR-style cameras usually come with a very passable "one-size-fits-all" lens. SLRs are also prone to allowing dust into the housing while lenses are being replaced. SLR-style cameras are sealed and thus much better protected against dust.
And while no one can argue with the great quality of some of the higher end SLR glass, SLR-style cameras cost less than true SLRs, especially when the cost of lenses is taken into account. The Samsung Pro815 comes with a stunning 15X optical zoom lens that's equivalent to 28-420mm on a 35mm film camera. Depending on optics and features, SLR zoom lenses alone can cost more than the Samsung Pro815's suggested street retail price of US$699.
Spectactular specs, mostly
Despite its ever growing lineup of excellent digital cameras, "Samsung" doesn't come to mind when one thinks of traditional camera companies. So just like the Korean automobile industry, Samsung chose the path of attracting attention with a variety of extra features at a price lower than that of the more established competition. And just as is the case with the Korean auto industry, in some areas this approach works well, in others there are compromises. A look at the Pro815's spec sheet reveals an 8-megapixel camera capable of generating images up to 3,264 x 2,448 pixels. You can save in JPEG, TIFF and RAW format and record images on the popular and widely available CF card format. Sensitivity is limited to ISO 800; some of the competition allows 1600 by now. But this is pretty much the end of average specs.
Samsung clearly went all out in several other areas. The main LCD measures a full 3.5 inches diagonal and has a resolution of 235k pixels. That size is Pocket PC territory, makes for incredible viewing of images, and totally dwarves the competition. It's a transmissive LCD which makes it wonderfully vibrant indoors, but it also also what Samsung calls "Micro Reflective" so that it remains nicely viewable outdoors. The LCD is fixed and you can't swivel it like, for example, the one on the Fuji Finepix S9100. That means you can't hold the Pro815 above your head and shoot that way while still seeing the LCD. However, Samsung added something to partially make up for that and then some: on top of the camera sits a secondary wide-format 1.44-inch LCD for waist-level shooting (see image above). It can also be used as a status LCD to display shooting data. Or to show live view and have a subset of the shooting data to the left and right of the picture. Nice.
While this type of camera is primarily used for advanced picture taking, we've come to expect decent movies from our digital cameras, and the Pro815 does not disappoint. You can take 640x480 VGA movies and use the camera's massive zoom while doing so. Sound is recorded in stereo. The only minor drawback is a not-quite-lifelike 25 frames per second speed; most of the competition allows 30 fps.
Other cool stuff
Somehow, and perhaps thankfully, Samsung hasn't gotten into the "buzzword" game as much as most of the other digital camera manufacturers. So the box and promo materials are not full of hyperbolic terms and cryptic abbreviations. Instead, Samsung simply states what the company is proud of. Such as "the world's longest built-in 15X zoom," "the world's largest digital camera LCD," "the world's largest-capacity lithium-ion battery," and so on. They even qualify that in fine print: "Among digital cameras introduced by August of 2005." Such modesty is refreshing, especially when there is, in fact, much to brag about.
The 28-420mm 35mm equivalent Schneider-Kreuznach (a prestigious German photo-optics company that OEMs the lenses to Samsung) zoom lens is remarkable, going all the way from wide-angle to extreme zoom. Such a range can result in chromatic aberrations, which the Kreuznach optics minimize via four low-dispersion and two aspherical lenses for the correction of spherical aberration and lateral colors over the entire zoom range. Multi-coating minimizes ghosting and flaring. Amazingly, the Pro815 also offers a 4X digital zoom for a total zoom of 60X. That, of course, is best used with a tripod.
Instead of fancy/proprietary terminology for an anti-shake feature, Samsung simply mentions a high speed mode that minimizes the effects of camera-shake by switching to higher sensitivity and thus faster shutter speeds (there is, however, no true optical anti-shake mechanism). And instead of referring to yet another buzzword, the company simply stresses "fast response time" in reference to a one-second startup and 1.3 second shot-to-shot speed, continuous shooting at 2.5 frames per second, and an ultra-high speed mode that allows ten 1024x768 pictures per second for up to three seconds.
As for the battery, it is a 7.4 Volt/1,900 mAh Li-Ion pack. That translates into 14 watt-hours and is good for up to 450 images per CIPA standards. For comparison, our Olympus Evolt 330 dSLR uses a 7.2 Volt/1,500 mAh pack (10.8 watt-hours).
The Pro815 has a built-in pop-up flash that seems tiny, but offers a rather impressive 20-foot range at 100 ISO. It automatically opens but can also be manually popped up. For serious indoor shooting, of course, you want an optional external flash.
All SLR-style cameras have a learning curve because they offer more features and thus have more controls than your standard -- and by now pretty much standardized -- point & shooter. With the high 3.5-inch LCD taking up a lot of real estate on the backside of the camera, some controls are on the side and some on top. They are fairly logically organized and cleanly marked, though the small imprinted symbols on glossy black tab buttons can be hard to see.
On the back you find the ubiquitous 5-way navigation disc with a menu/ok button in its center. The four directions of the nav disc also access macro, flash, white balance and image modes which are then selected via the rear scroll wheel/jog dial (named JOG2). A small button toggles between recording and playback, and three tabs to the left of the LCD cycle through various LCD display settings and let you access the scene modes. Those, despite the huge display, are only represented with icons and it's easy to get confused or pick the wrong one. Two small buttons on the upper right serve as zoom-in/zoom-out in playback mode; in recording mode one of them is used for auto exposure lock and the other for engaging 2X or 4X digital zoom.
The hardware controls on top are neatly and logically arranged. There is a large mode dial with eight very legible settings, the power button, and two tabs each to the left and right of the secondary LCD. Those tabs access ISO, metering, drive and self timer functions. The mode dial settings are manual, program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, MySET (to save frequently used camera settings), movie, scene (11 of them are then selectable), and auto.
To the left are the manual flash pop-up button, a focus selection dial (single, continuous, manual), the high-speed mode button, and focus mode and area selection buttons.
The front side of the body contains one additional improtant control, and that is a second scroll wheel/jog dial, named JOG1.
On-screen menus are very clean and uncluttered. In all record modes there are three sets: start-up settings, camera settings, and tools. Each set uses a different color. In playback mode, camera settings are replaced with playback settings. Given the huge LCD, the menus are actually almost too sparse. This is one instance where a bit more text and explanation would help. Fortunately, the Pro815 comes with a very good 163-page user's manual (though we'd like to see an alphabetized index).
Using the Samsung Pro815
The Pro815 is the opposite of the ever-proliferating little "card" cameras that pack six to ten megapixel into packages so small you can stick them into any pocket and be ready to take pictures anywhere and in an instant. Shooting with the big Samsung requires planning and a conscious effort. This is a camera you take on a photo trip, not one that you simply carry along just in case. It is also a big and heavy camera, so you either hold it or carry it with you in a bag.
You want to take several hours to read the manual, go through all the features, practice, and just generally familiarize yourself with the camera and its considerable power. The main LCD can show as many as 30 different indicators as icons or numbers (and the secondary LCD on top as many as 23), and learning what they all mean can take a bit of time. It's worth it, though. That is not to say the Pro815 is excessively difficult to use. You can simply set the mode dial on "auto" and start shooting, but for that you really don't need a camera like this. Despite the references to its speed, shutter lag is a bit more than we like.
The menus, as mentioned, are elegant but minimal, and that also goes for the icons brought up by pushing some of the hardware buttons. The Drive button, for example, depending on the mode you're in, can bring up as many as seven icons, entitled C (continuous), H (high speed), U (ultra-high speed), AEB (auto exposure bracketing), AFB (auto focus bracketing), WBB (white balance bracket), I (interval), and blank (normal). Those modes are selected with JOG2. JOG1 is then used to pick additional settings or select a range. That is a lot of stuff to remember. The same applies to almost all other buttons and settings. Prepare to study!
The self-timer takes pictures after two seconds, ten seconds, or ten seconds and then another after two more. The camera also comes with a remote control to take self portraits (or any other remote shots). It is, as we found out the hard way, easily lost.
Playback mode covers the basics. You can do slide shows, trim pictures, rotate them, apply all the various PictBridge printer functions, resize, protect, delete, or add a 10-second voice memo. Pictures taken back in portrait mode auto-rotate when played back.
The 815Pro comes with Digimax Master software, though we're not quite sure why. It is underwhelming and for once we'd rather have seen even a limited version of one of the standard third party image applications.
The Samsung Pro815 in daily use
The Pro815 shines in many areas. The big 3.5-inch LCD is a total pleasure. As is the addition of the second LCD on top. And the electronic viewfinder comes in handy when it's too bright outside to see the LCD clearly. Operation is simple enough to allow for good pictures right out of the box, though it takes a few hours of studying the manual and the controls to get the most out of the camera. We appreciated the powerful battery.
Where the big Samsung excels, of course, is its massive 15X zoom lens that makes some of the competition look puny in comparison. With this camera you can get close no matter where you are. Digital magnification can get you decent images even at 60X (tripod recommended).
The controls are superb as well, but while we appreciate the clean look of the menus, they are simply too sparse and require a needlessly high amount of memorizing. The big LCD practically asks for much more information and labeling.
Overall, this is a very nice effort by Samsung. The excellent lens and huge screen alone make the Pro815 a powerful alternative to a low-end dSLR.
Not so much:
- Huge 3.5-inch primary LCD makes camera a pleasure to use
- Excellent 28-420 mm provides wide angle to massive zoom
- Very powerful battery lasts a long time
- Secondary LCD on top allows hip-level shooting
- Excellent hi-res electronic viewfinder
- Stereo sound and fll zoom with VGA movies
- Clean, logical control layout
- Good macro functionality
- Fixed lens system eliminates SLR "dust problem"
- Supports RAW format
- No true image stabilization
- Only goes up to ISO 800
- Needlessly sparse menus, almost no online help
- Button labeling hard to see
- Included software marginal
- Large and heavy