Samsung entered the enthusiast compact arena in 2010 with the EX1, a 10 megapixel camera that featured a fast f1.8-2.4 lens but did little to push the envelope in terms of other features. As with many of the cameras out at the time, the EX1 used a CCD sensor that was adequate in low light but didn’t have the throughput for fast burst rates or HD video. Reviews were positive but not glowing – there was little to differentiate this first model from the rest of the field.
Samsung’s 2012 release, the EX2F, does quite a bit to stand out from today’s field. Their emphasis on wireless connectivity is at the center of all their high-end cameras now, and the EX2F can upload to sharing services, your television or phone, send emails, and be remotely controlled by your smartphone. The inclusion of Wi-Fi differentiates the EX2F from every other enthusiast compact on the market, yet photographic performance of course still needs to be competitive.
The 24-80mm f1.4-2.7 zoom is about as fast as they come, and features like the swiveling 3-inch AMOLED screen, filter threads, and new 12.4 megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor are welcome additions as well. Does all this mean Samsung’s top-end camera has matured enough to compete with offerings from Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and Fujifilm? Read on to find out.
Body and Design - Samsung EX2F
The EX2F is a very solid, substantial camera that also sits well in the hand. The enormous hand grip provides lots of real estate to wrap your fingers around, making using the review model without a wrist strap no problem at all. The digital camera is almost entirely made out of a high-grade plastic that, even under serious pressure, doesn’t bend a millimeter. The exception is the lens barrel itself, which is completely metal and lends a real feeling of quality to the camera.
The front of the camera is dominated by the protruding metal lens barrel, which is surrounded by a stippled metal ring that offers some panache and protects the filter threads. The lens itself is 24-80mm, f1.4-2.7, a decent range for such a fast aperture although just shy of the Panasonic LX7’s 24-90mm. There’s also a small control wheel inlaid into the front of the grip.
The top of the camera includes a pop-up flash on the far left side with a small release button. Next to that is a hot shoe for an external flash, the most likely pairing is the diminutive SEF-15A, which runs at just over $100. Moving along the top of the body are the stereo microphones, a Power button, the shutter button ringed by zoom toggle, and finally two different wheels. The first is a typical exposure mode wheel with access to manual settings in addition to Wi-Fi connectivity. The second is a drive mode wheel, which allows the user to quickly switch between timer, burst mode, and bracketing options.
The back of the camera features a very useful 3-inch AMOLED swiveling screen, which has 920,000 dots and is a pleasure to behold. It swivels 90 degrees down and a full 180 degrees up for self-portraits. Along the right side of the back plate sit a Record button, AEL button, Menu button, Fn button, a 4-way controller ringed by a control wheel, and finally a Playback button and Trash button at the bottom. The 4-way controller yields quick access to macro and flash settings, as well as a Share with Smartphone button and the Display button.
The bottom of the camera includes a metal tripod mount as well as the battery compartment and SD memory card slot. There is also an HDMI out port on the camera’s right side.
User Experience and Performance - Samsung EX2F
The EX2F comes with all the bells and whistles consumers have come to expect from a camera in this price bracket. The f1.4-2.7 lens is put to good use in aperture priority or manual modes, opening up low-light and shallow depth of field possibilities otherwise impossible on a compact camera. The 2-stop built-in neutral density filter allows you to use those wide-open apertures even in broad daylight, too, which is a nice bonus.
In addition to program, shutter and aperture priorities, manual mode, and video mode, the mode dial includes Wi-Fi, SMART Auto and Magic Plus options. SMART Auto is the go-to for those who just want to point and shoot: the camera selects the best scene mode for a given situation and does all the work for you. Magic Plus, on the other hand, allows you to choose one of nine scene modes, which include Beauty Shot, Night, Sunset, Backlight, 3D and more. There are a number of more specialized functions to be found here too, like creating a panorama, merging two pictures together with Split Shot or Picture in Picture, shooting an HDR photo (which yielded very poor results), or emulating a painting with the Artistic Brush setting. The final option in Magic Plus is called Creative Movie Maker, which allows you to quickly create and save a movie slideshow of your media. You can choose from a few themes, some cheesy background tracks, and then let the camera get to work. It’s a tacky but fun way to quickly show your most recent exploits without uploading to a computer first.
The Wi-Fi setting yields a number of different options, including sending images to your cell phone, using your smart phone as a remote viewfinder, sharing to social media sites, sending an email, backing up to the cloud or your computer, or displaying on a DLNA-enabled TV. Unlike the Panasonic SZ5 we recently reviewed, the wireless capabilities on the EX2F worked flawlessly. We were able to upload to Facebook from the camera, send images to our phone while out and about, and even control the camera remotely, albeit slowly. Transfer over a wireless network isn’t as fast as using a cord, but it definitely could come in handy.
There were very few times we found ourselves waiting for the
EX2F to catch up. Autofocus is impressively quick in good light and in lower
light with the autofocus lamp. The EX2F turns on in just under 2 seconds and
off in about a second, fast enough to catch the moment although not quite as
good as the speediest compacts. Write times to the class 10 SDHC memory card
were exceptional, the only exception being a longer wait while writing RAW+JPG
or after capturing a continuous burst.
A wheel on top of the camera, as mentioned before, controls all the drive mode settings. The buffer limit is ten images so shooting 10fps lasts for a second, 5fps for two seconds, and 3fps for three seconds. Other options include the self-timer, white balance and exposure bracketing, and a pre-shot setting that records ten images between the time you half-press the shutter and take the photo. Note that autofocus is locked in all these continuous settings and the flash, which takes a few seconds to initially charge, will not keep up.
While the two control dials go a long way toward making the
camera controls easy to manipulate, Samsung seems to have missed the boat on
customization. The AEL button might be useful for some, but why not give users
the option to map it to manipulate ISO or white balance? The function button
provides quick access to most of these functions, thankfully, and you can use
the front control dial to quickly cycle settings. You may be manipulating ISO more
than you’d like, though, for Auto doesn't go above ISO 800 or
below 1/8 second. Samsung should have also taken a page out of Canon and Panasonic's book by implementing a control ring around the lens itself. The filter thread guard seems like wasted potential.
Samsung EX2F is a decent performer with a huge number of features, some
genuinely useful (like the Wi-Fi) and others not so much. Performance in both
low light and good light is exemplary, although that Auto ISO limitation could
be a deal breaker for those who prefer to let the camera do the work.
Image Quality - Samsung EX2F
Samsung utilizes relatively high default sharpening, a fairly steep tone curve, and boosted saturation in JPGs that results in punchy images at the expense of dynamic range and some sharpening artifacts. When compared to the RAW files, JPGs have noticeably more highlight and shadow clipping as well sharpening halos around fine detail. Colors also tend to clip in contrasty situations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – automatic users often appreciate the snappier images – but those who crave the highest image quality should really be shooting in RAW.
The JPG engine does some weird things as the ISO ramps up,
blurring detail and noise into oblivion while strongly accentuating
high-contrast edges. Chroma noise isn’t as suppressed as we’d like despite the aggressive noise reduction, however, and a whole bunch of artifacts crop up in
sharpened areas. A more natural look would most likely have been a better
approach, but ISO 800 is usable and 1600 could be in a pinch. If you’re willing
to shoot RAW, detail and colors hold up much better and ISO 1600 looks great
with some careful processing. A sample ISO 80 JPG is at left and a RAW converted to JPG in ACR (default settings) is right.
That speedy lens offsets much of the noise problems, of
course, yielding a full 2-stop benefit throughout the range over most compacts.
If you have lots of light we recommend stopping down a bit rather than shooting
wide open. Details are a bit soft wide open (see comparison left) but by even one stop down from wide
open things look crisper. Sharpness is fantastic from corner to corner, too, which
isn’t too surprising given the modest 3.3x zoom. There is some serious
chromatic aberration around highlights in the RAW files that doesn’t show in
the JPGs, meaning Samsung is applying some reduction in the JPG processing. The
lens is also highly susceptible to flare, which manifests as enormous blobs
that essentially destroy the photo. It is definitely the worst flare performance we've seen in a compact - a disturbing weak point in an otherwise competent performer.
Video quality on the Samsung EX2F is excellent. The autofocus keeps up with subjects adequately and exposure changes gradually to adjust for changing light levels. The user can zoom slowly in and out while filming and audio was quite clear.
Conclusion - Samsung EX2F
This is the first Samsung digital camera we have reviewed in quite some time, and it’s clear that the company has come a long way since their initial foray into digital cameras. The EX2F feels well thought-out, with controls that fall naturally under your fingers and features, like RAW capture and the fast lens, that really do appeal to photographers. And while some of the wireless functions seem a little gimmicky (why do we need to control the camera with our phone?), the wireless uploading works quickly and could be really useful. We wish that Samsung had allowed for some customization, but things all come together well enough as they are.
Image quality for JPGs is good if not stellar, with photos falling prey to Samsung’s overzealous processing. Output from either Panasonic’s LX7 or Olympus’ XZ-2, the two closest competitors, is a bit better but shooting in RAW really evens the playing field. The flare problems are the most worrisome issue here, but check out the samples to see what you think. Overall, the EX2F is a solid update to the aging EX1, combining a number of cutting-edge features into a high performing camera built for enthusiast photographers. While other manufacturers may offer better choices, the EX2F isn’t a bad one.
The camera to beat in this segment is the Sony RX100, but its price may be out of reach for most. Panasonic's LX7 has a slightly longer zoom range and a faster lens, and initial reviews point to very good image quality. The Olympus XZ-2 is another good choice, but neither this nor the Panasonic offer wireless. Fujifilm's XF1 and Canon's more compact S110 are both worth a look, too, but neither offer the lens speed (or sensor advantage in the RX100's case) of these others.