Why is it that one can’t ever find reviews for the multitude of inexpensive digital cameras that flood the market on what seems like a weekly basis? I think the answer is that there are simply too many for reviewers to get to. As a result, even “name brand” companies can release mediocre products which make a fast buck, then are quickly “buried” by the newest model.
I’ve been using an older Samsung camera for a couple of years now, a 7.2 megapixel S730. I’ve been fairly satisfied with it. The images are good, but with slightly washed-out colors. The videos, however are quite sharp, even in a large 640×480 window. The main drawback is that it eats batteries for breakfast. I had high expectations when purchasing the Samsung BL1050, which clocks in at a significantly heftier 10.2 megapixels; I was thinking it would be a measurable step up. Imagine my surprise at finding that both image and video quality were actually slightly worse than on my older camera, and that it suffered from some of the same flaws. Ouch. Enter the phenomenon known as “Buyer’s Remorse.”
Just a quick feature and spec list: The Samsung BL1050 is a 10.2 megapixel camera. It has 5x optical zoom, and 5x digital zoom. It has a sizable 2.7-inch LCD screen. The camera’s dimensions are about 2.4 inches in height, 3.8 inches in width, and 1 inch from front to back. It weighs 0.35 pounds. It is powered by AA batteries. It can take both SD or the larger SDHC memory cards. It records video with sound at 30 frames per second, in a 640×480 window in .AVI format, for durations limited only by available memory. The camera contains image stabilization and face recognition software, as well as red-eye reduction and other features. For more in-depth specs, please follow the link I’ve posted to the camera’s website.
The camera came bundled with 2 AA batteries, a wrist lanyard, an A/V cable, a USB cable, a reasonably durable canvas-like carrying case with belt loop and magnetic clasp, and a 1 GB SD card with case. There was also a “quick start guide” with a CD containing a PDF of the instruction manual along with Adobe Reader and “Samsung Master” software. I didn’t use the CD, since Windows XP automatically detects the camera. I purchased this bundle for the sale price of $119.99 plus tax; it’s regularly $149.99.
The BL1050 looks nice and feels solid. At first glance, the case looks to be all metal, but the front, back and bottom are actually cleverly painted plastic with a metal band running across the top and sides. The round lens barrel is metal as well, but the telescoping segments are plastic. Still, the only cheap-feeling components are the spring-loaded battery and SD door on the bottom and the hinged rubber flap covering the USB and DC adapter port on the side. The plastic click wheel on the top is also questionable; it works fine, but it feels like it could potentially come loose. The back of the camera is dominated by a generous (and sharp) 2.7″ LCD screen. Also on the back are a number of menu, navigation, and function buttons, as well as the zoom controls. The power and shutter buttons are on the top, along with the “mode” wheel. This camera does not have an optical viewfinder. Overall, the unit fits comfortably in the hands and is fairly easy to navigate. While it’s a little thicker and heavier than some cameras I’ve handled, it can still be slipped into a hip pocket.
The BL1050 is equipped with a variety of shooting functions and modes. Standard options include Macro mode for close up shots, a button to control the flash (which can be set to off, auto, or red eye reduction), and several auto-timer options. There is also a “face recognition” toggle button, in which a targeting reticle automatically zeroes in on people’s faces. This helps with framing, and also engages red eye reduction, and macro, if necessary. The color balance can be tweaked at any time for pseudo-artistic effects. You can give an image a red, green, blue, or sepia tint, or take pictures in black and white, or the slightly creepy “negative” mode. For image quality, you can choose how many megapixels to shoot in, which will affect file size and image resolution. There is also an option to choose between “normal,” “fine,” and “super-fine.” I tried all of these, and frankly couldn’t see the difference between the three. The camera lets you select a “centered” focus, or a focus based on multiple “targeted” objects, but there is unfortunately no true choice between deep or shallow focus (or both). White Balance gives you the option of choosing what type of weather or lighting condition you’re photographing in. I played around with this and, again, couldn’t really see a noticeable difference.
The “mode” wheel on top of the camera is used to quickly enable some of the most often used sets of features. There is a “Help” function, which provides helpful tutorials and image troubleshooting tips. The video camera icon enables shooting videos with few available options. The “Portrait” mode enables face recognition and red eye reduction. The Digital Image Stabilization (DIS) icon disables the flash, and tries to compensate for the inevitable movements that will occur with a longer exposure time. The “Scene” icon includes special parameters for night scenes, sunsets, photographing text, etc. The “Auto” mode is the default “point and shoot” mode where the camera “minimizes user settings.” “Program” mode gives you more options, like adjusting the white balance, while “Manual” mode requires you to customize complex aspects of your photography, like shutter speed. While this is the mode I probably should have played with the most, I must confess to leaving it alone, for lack of technical understanding.
The most important aspect of a camera is picture quality. Despite all the aforementioned options, the BL1050 suffers from the same pitfall as many digital cameras: its pictures only look good under ideal lighting, while other lighting conditions prove problematic. The flash on this camera tends to overexpose, big time. This is bad. Overexposure washes out and overwhelms natural color, leaving walls blindingly white, text unreadable, and people looking like the Pillsbury Dough-Boy. Simply turning off the flash doesn’t help. It slows the shutter time. And since it’s physically impossible to hold your hands perfectly still for more than a second or so, it will almost always result in a blurry image. Digital Image Stabilization (DIS) mode does help compensate for slight hand movements, but it usually results in an image that’s less sharp than I’d like, and which is sometimes bathed in a yellowish glow.
In light of this, one would think that the BL1050 would perform at its best outside, where everything is lit brightly so that the flash isn’t needed. While adequate outdoor lighting does eliminate problems with the flash (or lack thereof), it introduces other problems, namely the fact that the camera seems “blinded” by bright light or “overwhelmed” by especially vivid colors. A perfect illustration of this is my photo of a creosote bush which I’ve included with this article. It’s almost painful to look at; the leaves of the bush are a sickening color, while the sky is kind of a bright blur, and everything else is just hazy and washed out. I’ve also included a picture of my yard in the late afternoon. The glare on the wall is unbearable, while the sky is, again, a bright blur with no visible details such as clouds. Shady areas appear abnormally dark in contrast to the areas in direct sunlight. Under the right lighting conditions, the photos aren’t bad, but I’ve seen better. The camera does offer a good macro mode for sharp extreme close-ups. I also like the 5x optical zoom, which beats the current standard of 3x.
The video quality on this camera was the first thing that suggested that my older camera was better; I could see the difference right away. Videos taken with the BL1050 look grainy and muddled, and a bit on the dark side. When being panned quickly, the video experiences dizzying blurring and screen tear. This is actually typical of videos taken on still cameras as opposed to more advanced camcorders. When viewing a video of the back yard, I noticed strange wavy lines on the horizontal pattern of the blinds on the door (see screenshot). The sound on videos is passable but harsh, as the microphone picks up heavily on wind, breathing, and the sounds of the buttons being pressed. The sound actually cuts off while the camera is being zoomed in or out, as with my S730. This may be to prevent a loud whirring sound during playback. Overall, the video quality is OK, but nothing special. I’ve seen much better from other cameras.
The included AV cable plugs into the USB port on the camera, and connects to the RCA jacks on a television. This allows you to view your photos and videos (complete with sound) on a TV. This is a cool little extra. However I found that the image quality wasn’t so great when stretched out on a widescreen LCD.
In a way, a camera that uses AA batteries is nice because you can just carry extras instead of having to wait hours for an internal lithium battery to charge. Unfortunately, the BL1050 consumes batteries just as voraciously as my S730, no doubt due to the strong flash and the large LCD screen. Using two fresh batteries, I was able to get a maximum of 30 minutes shooting time out of the unit. And the battery meter went all over the place during this time. At one point the camera shut itself down because the battery meter was flashing empty. Then I turned it on later and the meter read “full” again. But it wasn’t long before it powered down again, this time with the lens still extended and uncovered. The only remedy was to put two fresh batteries in to make the lens retract. This is an annoying quirk shared by my older Samsung camera. These results were consistent with a second and third set of fresh AAs. Anyone taking this camera on a road trip had best bring along a bandoleer of AA batteries.
If you read some of my other reviews, you’ll learn how I hate being the jerk who taunts people by saying “You get what you pay for!” But, well… you do. The bottom line is that the quality of this camera isn’t that bad, but it’s not a standout, either. It’s adequate for casual stuff like taking pictures of things to sell online, or snapping photos to go up on a social networking site. But even for those purposes, you can probably get better quality out of a lower megapixel camera for an even lower price. And if you’re in the market for a camera for professional or artistic purposes, then don’t even think about this one. Since I fall at least partially into that category myself, and since I like my old camera better, I ended up taking the BL1050 back and getting a refund — well, sort of. Since there was technically nothing wrong with it, I had to eat a 15% “restocking fee” imposed by a certain faltering retail giant whose name rhymes with “Perk-it Pity.” Buyer beware. Anyway, this quality may be typical of cameras in the sub-$150 range. I can’t really recommend the BL1050 to anyone serious about their photos. Do some homework and try out some floor models. There are far better cameras out there. Here’s a breakdown for anyone that doesn’t feel like slogging through the whole review:
Has everything you need to start shooting right out of the box
Handy shooting modes and options
Easy to use, and easy to connect to a PC to upload images
AV cable is kind of cool
Nice, large LCD screen
5x Optical Zoom
Overexposure/Color washout from flash
Blurry images when NOT using flash
Blinding glare and apparent loss of detail in bright sunlight
Does not play well with extremely bright colors
Grainy video quality
Short battery life
No “deep focus” option; stuff in the background always seems blurry
Older cameras produce better photos