Samsung TL500 Review

The Samsung TL500 is a stylish, yet serious, compact camera that offers a lot of potential for the discerning photographer looking for a lot of power in a pocket size.  The TL500 (EX1 outside the US) goes head to head with the likes of the Canon G11/G12 and Panasonic LX3/LX5 in terms of features and performance.

So is this powerful pocket shooter good enough for the control freaks out there?  Read on to find out.

Key Features

  • 10MP 1/1.7″ CCD Sensor
  • 3x Optical Zoom (24-72mm equivalent)
  • Optical Image Stabilization
  • Bright f/1.8 Lens
  • 3″ Vari-Angle AMOLED Screen
  • ISO 80-3200
  • 640 x 480 Movie Capture at 30fps
  • RAW File Support

Handling, Ergonomics and Control

The first time I held the TL500, I fell in love with the control scheme of camera.  While the internal menu is polished and easily navigable, the external controls give you a ton of access to the camera’s features and they are smartly arranged as well.

The mode dial is not cluttered with a bunch of superfluous “dummy modes” as is found in so many compact cameras nowadays.  Samsung keeps it clean by only using the following modes: Auto, P, A, S, M, Movie, SCN, and Dual IS.

If you want to take advantage of the SCN (Scene) Mode, a list of scenes is displayed on the AMOLED screen, which you can then scroll through using the menu navigation.  The Dual IS Mode will crank up the ISO speed to aid the mechanical stabilization system in preventing image blur.

Next to the mode dial is another similar dial that offers quick access to drive modes: Single, Continuous, Timer (10 sec or 2 sec) and Bracket.  I have to hand it to Samsung for making this so convenient, while so many other cameras will bury this one or two levels deep in a menu system.  Also nestled inside this drive mode dial is the power button.

On the back of the camera, you get a menu button that gets you to all the camera customization features, as well as an Fn button that opens up critical settings like image quality and size, focus area and white balance settings, among others.

Exposure lock and quick access to metering modes can also be found on the backside of the TL500, along with a direct-record button for the camera’s lowly 640 x 480 video capture.  An image preview button rounds out the standalone buttons on the rear of the camera.

The TL500 also features a common 4-way control button that serves a dual purpose of menu navigation and provides quick access to display options, flash and ISO settings, and a macro/manual focus mode selector.  Surrounding this 4-way controller is a control ring that aids in menu navigation and item selection, as well as manual focus assistance.

A second control wheel can be found intelligently placed on the grip of the camera with reach of the forefinger’s position while holding the camera.  This wheel can be used for changing the shutter speed when in in S or M mode, which is a perfect pairing to aperture adjustments made via the control ring surrounding the 4-way controller on the rear.

On top of the TL500 is a pop-up flash, which is activated by pressing an adjacent switch.  And, if the built-in flash does not provide enough juice for your taste, there is a hotshoe atop the camera as well, which will accept the Samsung SEF20A and SEF42A hotshoe flashes.

One feature that sets cameras like the Samsung TL500 (along with the Canon G11/G12 and Panasonic LX3/LX5) apart from the rest of the compact camera crowd, is the ability to store RAW file formats for later post-processing.  And while the TL500 is packaged with Samsung’s quirky Silkypix software, the TL500 will receive support in Adobe Lightroom 3.2, which is currently in a release candidate version, but should launch as an official update soon.  As a result, the TL500 should fit nicely into the serious photographer’s workflow.

One of the quirks about shooting RAW with the TL500, however, is that it is not possible to capture RAW format images in continuous shooting mode – only single image capture.  In fact, if the camera is set to capture RAW format images, it will automatically switch to JPEG format when continuous shooting mode is selected.

The TL500 has a couple of other things going for it though – a wide, 24mm (equivalent) lens and a bright, f/1.8 aperture on the wide end.  And even though the TL500 lens only zooms to a 72mm equivalent (making it a 3x zoom), it stays a bright f/2.4 on the long end, which is something a lot of pocket cameras can’t say for themselves.

Another obvious downer with the TL500 is the failure to include HD video capture, relying instead on VGA resolution video capture at 640 x 480 pixels.  For those seeking a dual-purpose still/video camera, the new Canon G12 and Panasonic LX5 may be more attractive options, both of which offer 720p HD video capture.

Like a lot of cameras, the TL500 struggles with white balance under tungsten light.  Auto white balance does a pretty good job on the TL500, but it still leaves images a little warm at times.  Thankfully, the TL500 lets you tweak custom temperature settings or even take a reading of a neutral tool to program a custom white balance for a given scene.

Aside from a couple of missteps, the TL500 is a pleasure to use.  The tilt/swivel LCD makes for easy photo or video capture at just about any angle.  As noted above, the control scheme is quite intuitive – especially for a first-generation camera.

Shutter response is quick; however, image review and cycling can be a little sluggish when shooting RAW files.  I didn’t find this to be overly annoying, but there were definitely times when I wished the preview would pull up a bit faster.

The macro mode works well and will suffice for most – given it has a 1cm minimum focus distance.  Manual focusing is a bit odd.  Even though you can use the control ring on the rear for manual focus adjustments, the TL500 zooms to the center of the image while you are focusing and you must confirm your focus at that point.  While it works in most situations, I just expected something a little more customizable and polished coming out of this impressive little camera.

All in all, the TL500 functions and handles quite well in spite of a few quirky design and operation issues.

Image Quality

Simply put, the TL500 is one of the better point and shoot cameras available right now in terms of overall image quality.  While you are still dealing with a small point and shoot image sensor, the TL500 makes the most of it.  Keep it at ISO 800 or below and you’ll do very well with this camera.

While the JPEG images straight out of the camera will suffice for most casual shooters, you will get the most mileage out of the TL500 images if you shoot in RAW format and use a convenient RAW processing program like Adobe Lightroom 3 to punch those images up a bit.

Below are a handful of sample images captured with the Samsung TL500.  Feel free to download any of these sample images for your personal inspection (not for republication).  You can get the original files by right-clicking on any of the images and choosing “Save link as…”


ISO 800 – f/1.8 – 1/4s


ISO 800 – f/1.8 – 1/8s


ISO 800 – f/1.8 – 1/30s


ISO 400 – f/1.8 – 1/10s


ISO 800 – f/1.8 – 1/8s


ISO 200 – f/6.9 – 1/2s


ISO 400 – f/6.9 – 1/2s


ISO 800 – f/6.9 – 1/4s


ISO 1600 – f/6.9 – 1/6s


ISO 3200 – f/6.9 – 1/10s

Accessories

Samsung SLB-11A Battery – The TL500 comes with one of these rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; however, if you’re going to be away from power for an extended period, you can pick up spares.

SEF20A and SEF42A Hotshoe Flashes – If you want more pop than the built-in flash on the TL500, these are the two flash models designed to work with the TL500.  Note that these hotshoe flashes are also compatible with the Samsung NX10 if you happen to be building a Samsung system.

Memory cards – I’ve used the basic Kingston SD cards in the TL500, which worked just fine. No need to go all out on fast memory cards with the TL500. Cheap cards from reputable brands will work just fine. The TL500 is compatible with SD and SDHC cards – but not SDXC cards.

Memory card reader – If you don’t own a memory card reader, they make transferring images to your computer a world faster. I highly recommend picking one up with the TL500. They’re cheap and big time saver. Lexar makes a good card reader for about $15.

Conclusions

The Samsung TL500 deserves a spot on the shortlist of solid, compact cameras.  If you are looking into advanced-compact cameras, the TL500 should be on the radar alongside the Panasonic LX5 and the upcoming Canon G12.

As noted earlier, if video performance is a key concern, then you should pass on the TL500 in favor of better offerings elsewhere.  However, if functionality and image quality are paramount in your compact camera requirements, then it would be a disservice not to take a hard look at Samsung’s TL500.

Like the impressive Samsung NX10, the TL500 performs admirably as a first entry into a competitive niche market with established players like Canon and Panasonic.

The Samsung is available from Photography Bay’s trusted retail partner, B&H Photo, at the following link:

Samsung TL500 at B&H Photo

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