Samsung calls its S-series cameras point-and-shoots, but these slim snappers offer controls that could help them break away from the usual crop of mindless auto-only cameras. Before you get your hopes up, we have to warn that the Samsung Digimax S500's image quality leaves quite a bit to be desired. You'd be better served eschewing the controls offered here and opting for something along the lines of Nikon's Coolpix L3, which delivers better image quality and a touch more style for about the same price.
Measuring 3.8 by 2.4 by 1 inches and weighing just 4.8 ounces, the S500 fits nicely in a jacket pocket, and its curved grip makes it easy to hold. The sparse, silver- or black-and-gray look won't turn heads but isn't ugly either. Its 3X optical, 35mm-to-105mm (35mm equivalent), f/2.8-to-f/4.9 zoom lens extends outward from the camera front when powered up and retracts when turned off.
The power button, the mode dial, and the shutter release reside atop the camera, while the zoom rocker, a four-way-plus-menu/OK control pad, and three other control buttons occupy the right side of the camera back next to the 2.4-inch LCD. The zoom rocker sits about 0.25 inch too far to the right for comfort, though the curved indent underneath it provides a perfect spot for your thumb. The three control buttons let you enter play mode and adjust exposure compensation; not to mention access settings such as ISO, white balance, and RGB intensity as well as other options, such as color modes, photoframe overlays, stitch-assist modes, and framing guides to help you line up your subjects. This last button is labeled with an E for effects, while the exposure compensation button is labeled with plus and minus symbols.
The problem is that most manufacturers place options such as white balance and ISO in the regular menu. Not only that, since the camera defaults to show current settings on the LCD (a good thing), including ISO, it's hard to notice that the exposure compensation button gives you access to adjust this and other settings. Furthermore, when in full manual mode, you have to press exposure compensation twice to access these settings-- again, not very intuitive.
Still, we were happy to see a full manual exposure mode. Not many point-and-shoot cameras let you select both aperture and shutter speed. Strangely, the S500 doesn't offer shutter- or aperture-priority modes, though it does include program and full auto modes, as well as 10 scene presets. While not as many as some of its competitors, this Samsung covers all the basics, such as portrait, night, landscape, and sunset, and even includes one called dawn in case you end up partying all night after shooting that sunset.
Exposure compensation covers a range of plus or minus 2EV in 1/2-stop increments. Most cameras offer 1/3-stop increments, for a finer degree of control. Similarly, the S500's manual shutter and aperture adjustments use 1/2-stop steps, though again, that's still more control than most cameras in this price range. If you really want to be safe, you can set the S500 to automatically bracket exposures, in which case it will shoot three shots in succession: one normally exposed, one at plus-0.5EV, and one at minus-0.5EV. Metering options include multi, which averages readings from throughout the image area with an emphasis on the middle; and spot, which measures only the center of the image.