How Not To Buy a Camera - and get away with it!
In case you are planning to buy a digital camera, the prudent way is to check on the web what's available, find out which cameras have positive reviews, and then decide which ones offer the best features and quality for the best price. Don't just buy a cheap camera on the spur of the moment... except that's exactly what I did. Lucky bastard that I am, I got a good value for my money, but for a moment I was scared clean and nice. Read on for my review of this camera...
I had been at a department store back in Switzerland (never buy cameras at department stores!) and while waiting for the gf, I strolled through the electronics corner. Usually I just look at the computers, but since wildweasel has burned a hole in my ears whining about my lousy phone camera pix, I had a look at the digicams. Shouldn't have done that, because I saw a camera at a reduced price, at the bottom of one of the locked glass vitrines, down from ~ 100 Euro to ~ 60 Euro. As my friend saad always says, I'm the master of cheap jokes, so this hit my cheapness detonator switch.
Once the gf came back, I showed her my find and we got a sales droid to open the lock and hand me a "Samsung Digimax Cyber 530" - whatever that is. (This camera is sold also under a couple of other names, like Kenox S500, Digimax S500.) To tell you the truth, I have heard the name Samsung before, and I've read a general good review about Samsung stuff on gizmodo or so, that's about as much as I know. The sales droid tried to scare me that this camera takes two AA cells, and tried to tempt me with a Sony camera that cost ~ 120 Euro - only a little more. Having to buy batteries wasn't to my liking, but the poor guy couldn't guess that I have a strong dislike of Sony stuff (because whatever Sony I have owned in my life has died of buttons not working any more). I got the Samsung.
Next thing I'm back at my fathers place, playing around with the camera. I'm indoors, in a room with a few windows, but every picture I take is violently shaken with smears due to long exposure and me shaking the camera. I felt like Mr. Stupid. To give you some background information: I used to be a photographer. As such I never liked the light emitted from the built in flashes in cameras. They are the cause of very sucky pictures. I'm also willing and able to take long exposure shots holding a camera steady in my hands. I've been known to hold a steady camera through 1 second exposures. So I was mighty confused.
The solution was to read through the flimsy little manual. Apparently, in automatic mode the camera sets the sensitivity of the chip very low, which is fine in bright light and when using the ugly built in flash. What I had to do is keep the camera on "program" mode, and manually set the sensitivity to 400 ISO. That gives acceptable times even in indoor situations for me (which means exposures like 1/3 second - not acceptable for most people I guess). The good thing is that with "program" mode, the camera even remembers that I have set the flash to "off".
The next surprise came after taking about 20 pix. When pressing the exposure button to the point of auto focus, the display would go black and the camera totally unresponsive. The lens stayed extruded, but the camera didn't react to any button presses. Bummer, looks like I had bought a lemon. I took out the batteries, waited a while, inserted them again. The camera came to life, working display and all... until you pressed the exposure button again. Same game. I remembered the sales droid trying to scare us about the batteries, so I suspected the batteries to be low already. Looked like I had gotten old batteries or (even worse) the camera was sucking up a lot of juice. The battery indicator would show "full", then when the battery came back from blackout for a second it would show "empty" before jumping back to "full".
A new set of batteries were empty as fast as the first ones. I felt a cold chill and smelled a soft lemon scent. But at this point I was back to a place with Internet access, so I checked the wisdom of the many. It turned out that the camera got acceptable to good reviews, with the exception of the batteries, to which one reviewer mentioned that you have to get rechargeable (NiMH) batteries or something called "super AA" cells (never heard of those) and normal AA cells just won't do.
We went out and got a set of 4 NiMH batteries of 2700 mAh with charger. Using the first 2 of these, the camera has gone through 3 days and about 40-50 pix (most without flash though), and it's still showing 1/3 charge. Acceptable to me.
As most of the reviews I had seen state, the image quality is good. In my totally unscientific tests, I see nice sharp pictures, even though I don't even run the camera on the highest resolution (which is 5.1 MegaPixel, but I want my pix for this blog, where stuff gets massively resized anyway). I don't really see a lot of optical aberration (neither with the zoom on wide angle nor on tele). Of course I'd have to take real measurements to get these really examined, but if the lens isn't aberrating to the point that I see it right away, I'm not scared.
The colors look good too, but I've never been very good at color correction anyway. In my totally unscientific experiments I did not have to correct the colors to get acceptable shots. In fact when I attempted to correct colors (e.g. for a blue hint of the sky on a white ice rink), I couldn't find a setting that improved much. I found out how to correct the white balance too (again only in "program" mode), using the on screen menu. Not very often needed, but helped a bit with taking indoor lamplight shots in front of window light.
The camera's handling is simple. No surprises and most things work as expected. That's an important thing, because the manual suxx, and if I had to rely only on the little information given in the manual, I'd be lost. (Yes, I'm the kind of guy who read the manual, and indeed have taken useful information out of this one too.) But most things are just where I'd expect them to be, and work just how I'd expect them to work. There is cool stuff like thumbnails of the stored pictures and a zoom view that shows you "where you are" - I don't know how standard they are for cameras like these.
Some of the on screen stuff is never explained in the manual. Most of it I can figure out. There are some "advanced" flash modes (flash-A, flash-S icons), which I'll have to experiment to find out what they do. As mentioned, I'm not much of a built in flash user. In the meantime I've downloaded a real manual off the Web. The flash modes are nothing fancy, but I'm unlikely to use the flash much anyway.
To connect to my Mac I used the USB cable that came with the camera. It has a special connector on the camera side, so I'll have to take care never to lose it. The camera shows up as a removable drive on the Mac then, with access to pictures and movies through the Finder. All I need. There's a CD with Windows software, which I guess makes a nice coaster for your teapot. The camera takes SD memory cards, I got a cheap 1Gig with space for a lot of pix.
Fast is nice: Something that always was annoying with my phone's camera was the long time it took switching from picture taking mode to viewing mode. If there were a couple hundred photos in there, it could sometimes take almost a minute. On the new camera it's instantaneous. I've set the time that a pic will be auto-displayed after snapping it to minimum and just fast switch to the "playback" mode when necessary.
This is a "point and click" camera. There is nothing to attach an external flash cable, no optical viewfinder (and the display will at some point be unreadable in bright sunlight). There is a thread to screw the camera on a tripod though. It's not a SLR where you can set up everything. Most of the automatic modes do whatever they like, but there is the "program" mode (you can change everything except diaphragm, shutter speed, and focus) which I seem to be using exclusively, and a "manual" mode, where you should be able to change every setting except focus (which is always on auto focus it seems).
Apparently the amount of stuff you can set is much compared to some other point-and-shoot cameras. It seems I was extra lucky there, as I wouldn't have liked something with less control.
I got good value for my money and I was one lucky bastard for buying a camera on pure luck and ~ 60 Euros. Even taken into account the 17 Euro I paid for rechargeable batteries and a charger, I still got a cheap good camera. And wildweasel will hopefully stop the whining now.