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After getting home after a once in a lifetime trip I eagerly downloaded all my photographs onto the PC to view them. I don't think I have ever been so disappointed in my whole life. Only a few of my pictures were what I would class as good and the limitations of my compact digital camera were clearly apparent. It was time for some serious thinking.
Back in the days of 35mm film cameras I owned a Canon SLR and I can honestly say that I never took a lousy shot with it. Autofocus took account of my terrible eyesight and excellent zoom capability enabled me to frame pictures exactly as I wanted. It was time to start looking around for a digital SLR.
I spent hours trawling through the plethora of photographic sites on the internet gathering the information I needed. I determined that my budget would be no more than £600. Cameras costing more than that were certainly too complex and far too advanced for what I needed. My choices eventually narrowed down to the Pentax *ist DL, the Nikon D50 and the Canon EOS350D.
My compact digital was a Nikon model so my initial preference was for another Nikon. A big plus for the Nikon was that it took SD memory cards and I had plenty of those as they were what my compact took. The Canon had much better write-ups in most of the magazines I had read, was recommended by more people, had many more accessories widely available and was a higher number of megapixels, 8.0 compared to 6.1. It was however more expensive and the biggest disadvantage of all was that it took CF cards, of which I didn't have any. It also took a specialist rechargeable Canon battery so, if I wanted to buy a "spare", I would have to shell out even more cash. To add a telephoto lens as well would have blown my original budget.
The Pentax was much cheaper, took SD cards and could be obtained as a package with two lenses for less than the cost of the Canon with only one. However, it was handling the cameras that reduced the list. The Nikon was not comfortable to hold. It may be a personal thing and someone with different shaped/sized hands might totally disagree with me, but I simply did not find the Nikon comfortable. So it came off the list of possibilities. The Canon was comfortable but, because of the other disadvantages, it was only hanging onto the very bottom of my list by the skin of its teeth.
It was while looking at and handling the Pentax and the Canon that the Samsung GX-1S first appeared on my radar and I set about finding out more about it. The name of Samsung conjours up images of televisions and mechanical diggers to me so I was surprised to find that they did cameras too.There appeared to be two models available with almost identical specifications, the GX-1S and the GX-1L. As far as I could determine the only difference between the two was the way in which the shutter operated. Further investigation on t'internet showed that the 1L was much more widely available than the 1S. The big thing about the Samsung was that they are simply rebadged Pentax models. They take Pentax lenses and accessories and yet were consistently priced at £50 to £60 less than the Pentax *ist. In effect the only difference between the two cameras was the manufacturer's name on the front of the camera and on the lens caps.
The Samsung therefore ticked every box that the Pentax had, but cost me much less. It was a no-brainer really and I ordered my camera with two zoom lenses from Kamera Altrincham for less than £400.
Information about the Samsung, and any of the other cameras mentioned here, is widely available on the web and I see no point in reproducing it here. I think that people read these reviews to see what products are like to live with and use. If they want any detailed information they can easily look on the various manufacturers web sites.
Soon my postman was knocking on my door and I was in possession of my very first digital SLR. The package I chose was the camera body, the 18-55 zoom and the 50-200 zoom. Complete with the package was a decent Samsung branded case which would take the camera with either of the lenses fitted. The camera took AA batteries, which were thoughtfully supplied and within minutes of opening the box it was in my hands ready to be set up.
The camera was instantly comfortable to hold, with the fingers of your right hand wrapping around the bulge in the front of the casing. It wouldn't be suitable for a left-hander, but there again I don't think many cameras would be. The optical viewfinder is centrally placed along the top (in the usual place) and the large, 2.5 inch LCD display dominated the rear right hand portion of the camera's back. One thing I immediately noticed, and this is apparently common on all digital SLRs, is that you cannot "frame" your shot in the LCD like you can with compact cameras. It is very much a case of taking the picture then reviewing it on the screen.
In the box
Everything you need is in the box. A USB lead to connect the camera to a PC, a video cable should you want to connect it to a TV, a shoulder strap, comprehensive manual (which is also available on the CD and on the Samsung web site) and CD, as well as the 4 AA batteries. More about the CD later. Both lenses came with clip-on lens caps, lens hoods and screw-on protectors for the Pentax KAF bayonet-fitting mount.
First use and setup
The camera weighs in at 505g but it is unclear whether this includes batteries and a lens. Certainly it is not too heavy to hold or carry about and feels solid and well-built when held.
The first thing I did was to fit a 52mm skylight filter to each of the lenses. This helps to keep some hues of particular colours more life-like as well as protecting the actual lens face itself and keeping it free of dust. I also applied a clear protective cover (Jessop's, £4-99) to the LCD.
Setup was a piece of cake with most of the default settings being more than adequate for average use however, every single setting can be altered should you wish to do so. The time and date do need setting manually but this was easily accomplished within a few minutes. The camera can be focussed automatically or manually, the changeover between the two is governed by a small switch on the camera's front. Settings can also be manual or automatic.
Firstly I experimented with the fully automatic mode which, to be quite honest, isprobably what most users will do most of the time. Despite the apparent complexities of a digital SLR, this one can be used as a "point and press". Frame the subject of the photograph in the viewfinder, manually move the zoom control of the lens in and out until the subject is as big or as small as you want, press the shutter halfway in and listen to the lens autofocus. If the flash is needed it pops up automatically then snap and the photo is taken. It really can be as simple as that.
The shot then displays for a few seconds on the LCD. The 2.5 inch display does justice to the finished result, it is clear and easily visible under all but the brightest sunlight. You can tell at a glance whether you need to take another photo. If you want to view the shot for longer than this then you have two options. You can either review your shots by clicking on one button on the back of the camera body or you can go into the settings and alter the amount of time that each shot displays for.
While you are looking at your photo the flash (if it was used) is recharging ready for the next shot. This only takes 1 to 2 seconds and has certainly never been a problem for me. Constant viewing of shots on the LCD is known to quickly exhaust alkaline batteries, as does using the flash and constant focussing movements. I had already charged up two rechargeable CR-V3s and I have used these ever since. So far I have taken about 200 photographs, approximately half of them using the flash. I haven't yet had to recharge the batteries. I don't know whether this is complimentary to the batteries or the power consumption of the camera. The batteries supplied with the camera have been left in my camera bag for emergencies.
Changing the lens is a simple affair, click the button and twist the old lens off, line up the red dots on the camera body and the new lens fitting, push, twist and the new lens is fitted. After I had taken a couple of shots with the "standard" 18-55mm lens I then fitted the telephoto zoom 50-200mm and rattled off a couple of shots with that. Again I took shots both with and without the flash.
Although the camera is "pictbridge" compatible, which basically means you can plug it directly into a printer in order to print shots off, I chose not to try this out in the early stages. I was used to looking at colours on my monitor and was used to seeing photographs I had taken on screen. To get an accurate impression of the camera's capabilities I wanted to look at my shots under similar conditions. I was not disappointed. The SD card loaded up in no time and soon I was looking at my first results. Colours were rich, deep and accurately reflected the real thing. Flesh actually looked like flesh, there was no blooming or pink tinge sometimes associated with viewing pictures. None of the pictures looked too bright or too dark, in fact they looked like I remembered them. I was highly delighted.
I then printed a selection of them off and again was highly delighted with the results. They looked no different to those I'd had printed professionally back in my 35mm days.
As I said earlier, this camera takes SD cards. I already had a few of these as my compact camera and PDA both use this format of card. Indeed, it was one of the reasons for choosing this camera in the first place. There are various formats of data that photos can be taken in, including RAW which produces very large files but of a top quality. Be careful of saving images in this format though. Not all photo-manipulation packages will recognise the RAW format.
JPEG is much more common and is the "usual" format in whih images are saved. The camera has various format settings for JPEGs depending on the number of megapixels you choose. I chose to save all mine in 6.1 MP format. Within this there are then 3 "quality" settings than can be applied, each quality resulting in a larger file size. The best quality, Samsung refer to it as "superfine", causes the largest file size. Slightly reduced is called "fine", then there is a "normal" setting.
When viewing images onscreen at a normal setting there was very little difference in the visible quality. It was only when looking at enlarging or editing the pictures that the differences became apparent. The main difference is in file size. A 128Mb card will save images as follows:-
RAW 11 images Superfine 35 images Fine 70 images Normal 117 images
It is best to experiment with the various settings to find one that suits the individual circumstances of the user.
As with most things USB and Windows XP, setting up the camera with the PC was quick and painless. There are no drivers to install or anything complex like that, just plug it into the USB port, switch it on and let Windows "do it's stuff". Once the new hardware is detected and correctly installed, the camera appears in Windows Explorer as a new drive and the files and folders on it can be viewed, copied, moved etc in the same way that they can be in any folder.
More advanced use
An SLR is not designed as a "point and shoot" camera. Every setting is capable of being altered to meet the most demanding situations. Over the next couple of weeks I had the opportunity to test the camera in slightly more demanding situations. One was on a trip back from working in Lincoln when I was treated to the famous "Red Arrows" practising their display above their home base. I grabbed the camera out of the boot, quickly changed lenses from the 18-55 to the 50-200 and moved the mode dial round to the TV setting.
I do not profess to know a lot about photography and talk about aperture settings and depth of field and stuff like that confuses the hell out of me. But what I do know is that if you want to capture photographs of fast-moving objects then the shutter speed of the camera has to be a high number! The Samsung ranges from 30 seconds to 1/4000th sec which provides plenty of scope for what I wanted. The trade-off for fast shutter speeds is that because the shutter is only open for a very short time, the aperture has to be wider. In other words, it has to let more light in during the short time the shutter is open for. It was a bright, sunny day with few clouds around so I knew that I wouldn't really have to worry about aperture but I also knew from reading the manual that setting the mode dial to TV means that everything else falls into line governed by the speed of the shutter.
I filled an entire 128Mb SD card with images that afternoon, shooting shot after shot of those maestros of the RAF until they came into land. I even engaged what Samsung call their continuous mode where all I had to do was keep the shutter depressed and follow the action through the lens. The camera fired shot after shot automatically and over the course of about ten seconds it took 5 separate photos. I couldn't wait to get home to have a look at the results and they were brilliant. I was not disappointed with one of the shots and even have one of them set up as the wallpaper on my PC, I was so pleased with it.
A weekend or so later on a dark and dismal November day we went to a wedding. This called for a completely different setup to the camera. For a start I wasn't likely to need the telephoto lens so I took the wide angle 18-55mm. I deliberately left the function button alone on this occasion, I wanted to see how forgiving the camera could be when just left on automatic. I didn't get the opportunity to use the "burst/continuous" mode but the flash was severely tested, it was do dismal outside that even for some of the posed group shots, the camera was telling me that it needed the flash. Most of the photographs I took were fine, but a couple were a little dark. Perhaps if the bridal party had been wearing lighter colours (they chose purple and green (don't ask!)) I might have got more reflections from them, but I was a little disappointed with some of the outdoor pictures to the extent that a separate flashgun is now on my Christmas list.
Here again though, the Samsung's Pentax heritage is an advantage and I am not limited to buying just a dedicated Samsung flashgun, there are a couple of (cheaper) Pentax models that are fully compatible.
As I said earlier, almost everything is adjustable on this camera and space (and time) will not permit a full list here in this review. The mode dial gives the opportunity to change the type of shot you take. Other settings are reached through the menu button and the four-way controller button on the back of the camera. There are the usual types of features you would expect to find on all but the cheapest cameras.
There is a self-timer, a facility where you set the camera up, depress the shutter and then quickly run around to be in front of the lens so that you can be in the shot. There are two settings, a 2 second mode and a 12 second one. Access to this facility is simple and only requires two buttons to be pressed.
There is also a useful remote control facility and I bought myself a really useful little gadget off ebay for only £10-99 which means I can use it by infra red. Again, this facility can be accessed by only two buttons on the rear of the camera. The camera can be set up to use a Pentax cable remote control, but this was actually more expensive than the infra-red one and is more restrictive and much bigger. Set the camera up, press two buttons and then control of the shutter passes to the infra red keyring-sized controller. From that point onwards all you need to do is press the button and the camera will focus and then take the picture.
There is a movie program on the camera so you can record short movies. I have not yet tested this feature.
As I said earlier, the viewing screen displays the image taken for a couple of seconds. It can also be used to review all images on a memory card with a simple push of one button on the reverse of the camera. The default setting is to display one image only but this can be altered to display the images asa slideshow, where the images slowly scroll across the screen one at a time, or to display a grid of 9 separate images, although these are much smaller.
It is also possible to delete images by viewing the selected image on the screen and then clicking on the delete button. Usefully, and clearly designed to stop you from deleting an image by mistake, you then get a confirmation message pop up on the screen and you have to confirm by clicking on "yes" before the image is actually removed. It is also possible to rotate images on the screen.
The bundled CD contains a copy of the user guide as well as Samsung's own "Digimax" software. I installed it purely in the interests of seeing what it does, but I have now uninstalled it. If you already have one of the proprietary photo-editing packages you will not need Digimax. If you are comfortable using Windows Explorer for copying/pasting functions you will not need it either. This is a user-friendly program to aid the inexperienced user in editing photos and getting them from the camera to the PC or printer.
The camera and both lenses together cost me £389-98 from Kamera Altrincham. It was definitely the cheapest I could get it anywhere on the web at that time. Postage was free. By the time I had also bought a new 1Gb SD card, a good quality camera bag (LowePro), the 2 skylight filters and the infra-red remote control, the overall bill had risen by another £50.
This was still less than I could find any other digital SLR with two separate lenses from anywhere else. So perhaps the most important question I should answer is "do I think I got value for money?" I would answer this with a resounding YES, no doubt about it. It is a quality product that feels as if it is made for the job from the second you take it out of the box. It is easy to use and you can use it straight out of the box, thanks to the (thoughtful) inclusion of batteries, the default settings and the ease of use of the instruction manual. This is another plus point in my opinion, as it gets technical only in the places where it needs to and at no point does it ever assume that you are a photographical genius to start with. Illustrations are clear and informative and instructions are easy to follow.
I do not resent spending the money in any way and am glad I did so. Oh and by the way, it takes brilliant photographs too! The finished product is as good, yet much more versatile, than a 35mm film camera.
I would highly recommend this camera to anyone wanting to dip their toes into the joys of SLR photography. In my view it represents excellent value for money and is a quality product that delivers exactly what I want it to.
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Really excellent review, I was especially interested in your comments about photography of aircraft as that is one of my interests and so far , although my Panasonic FZ7 is handy, I've not been overly impressed when viewing shots at 100%. I've had good experience with Samsung's LCD TV, they seem to be a multi faceted company. Great review. Well done.
helencbradshaw 03.01.2007 00:20
I'd love to indulge and get myself something like this!