Even if you take your photography seriously, it's not always convenient to carry around a chunky dSLR, no matter how much you love having access to full manual controls and shooting in raw file formats.
If you need something a little more portable, the Samsung EX2F is one of a handful of short-range zoom compacts that should appeal. It boasts plenty of hardware controls, a flip-out screen and produces some great-looking results.
The Samsung EX2F can be bought for around £350 online.
It's a professional compact in every sense of the word. The regular mode selector dial is supplemented by a second dial that handles shooting speed, with options for single frame, low, medium and high-speed burst, bracketing and 2 and 10-second timers.
Those three burst mode options translate to 10, 5 and 3 frames per second, each at full resolution. They're supplemented by a smart pre-capture mode that grabs 10 frames in the time it takes you to move from half-pressing to fully pressing the shutter release. When using this mode, you can slightly pre-empt the action you want to capture and still have a very good chance of successfully capturing it.
In regular use, shutter speeds range from 1/8 to 1/2,000-second in smart auto mode, but you can push the longest exposure as far as a full 30 seconds in manual mode.
This, along with aperture when in Aperture Priority mode, is set using a small wheel set into the handgrip. Pressing it in switches between the primary mode setting -- shutter, aperture and so on -- and exposure compensation. Compensation only gives you two stops in either direction in 1/3 stop increments, but it's supplemented by an excellent built-in neutral density filter to improve the balance of your shots.
This is a physical filter, not a digital work-around, and you can hear it click into place when you enable it.
Sensitivity ranges from ISO 80 to ISO 3,200 in regular use, and can be pushed to ISO 12,800 with ISO Expansion.
Low-light performance is good. Increasing the sensitivity naturally introduces some noise into the results, but even at settings as high as ISO 1,600, it's well controlled and resembles what you can expect from some rivals at half that sensitivity.
The lens itself is extremely versatile on account of its bright maximum aperture of f/1.4. Even at full telephoto, equivalent to 80mm on a regular 35mm camera (it's a moderate 24mm at the opposite end of the scale), it stands at f/2.7, which many rival compacts struggle to achieve at wide angle.
This means it's easy to take some really short-focused shots, with the subject clearly pulled away from its surroundings to draw the eye.
Minimum focusing distance is 40cm at wide angle and 100cm at telephoto, although wide angle macro shots can be recorded with the lens as close as 1cm from the subject.
Colour and detail
Colours are very accurately reproduced in all lighting conditions. I performed my tests under predominantly cloudy skies, with white balance set to match, and the results were punchy and very satisfying.
The nose of this plane, below, is bright and the colours are rich in the paintwork and the reflection on the propellor. The sky, which could easily have been rendered a feeble grey in comparison, has plenty of texture in its various levels of luminance.
The EX2F has a back side-illuminated 12-megapixel sensor, which produces shots of 4,000x3,000 pixels. That's plenty for printing at A2 size and above when using an online commercial printer. It also allows for moderate, although not particularly tight, cropping.
However, the digital zoom, which backs up the physical 3.3x range of the lens, is pretty good. When used with care, its cropping and enhancing of the central part of the image doesn't greatly degrade the result.
There's a built-in HDR mode, which combines multiple exposures to increase the dynamic range of your shot. It's particularly effective when shooting scenes with extreme contrasts.
The fuselage of the plane below is predominantly silver, and so reflects the bright sky, which itself occupies more than half of the frame. Naturally, the camera exposes to balance these when using one of the regular shooting modes. But switching to HDR brings out greater detail in the darker grass and restores some blue and grey to the sky, both of which bring it much closer to what you see with the naked eye.
The EX2F will record for a maximum of 20 minutes per clip at a top resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, 1,280x720, 640x480 or 320x240. If you're happy to drop the resolution, you can shoot at far higher frame rates for smooth slow-motion playback. This will take you as high as 480 frames per second at 192x144 pixels, but if that's too pokey for your needs then you can still achieve 240 and 120fps at 384x288 and 640x480 pixels respectively.
The results are excellent and exhibit the same punchy colours and sharp detail as was evident in the results of my stills tests. You can still use many of the stills tools in video mode, too, including the ND filter, and the optical zoom also remains active.
You'll have to listen extremely carefully indeed if you want to hear any evidence of the zoom's movements on the soundtrack, which is another point in the EX2F's favour. There's no dedicated wind noise reduction option, but that wasn't an issue, even on a moderately breezy day, as the EX2F did a good job of ignoring the sound of passing gusts.
Design and build
The EX2F is extremely solidly built, with a metal body and a fold-out screen at the back that can be tilted for overhead or low-down use, or folded back on itself to sit facing out from the body like a conventional screen.
This isn't touch sensitive, but Samsung has implemented a quick menu system that takes you directly to the most common shooting settings courtesy of a large graphical display that you can navigate with the four-way controller and adjust with the thumbwheel. It's easy to use, and when used in conjunction with the grip-mounted finger wheel for adjusting shutter, aperture and exposure compensation, you can make changes very quickly.
There's a built-in flash and hotshoe for attachments, and it can latch onto your Wi-Fi network, both for backing up and sharing your images, and so that you can remotely control it using your iPhone or Android device.
My biggest concern is stamina. I charged the EX2F fully overnight before heading out into the field and used it for a full day, but by the time I got home, the battery icon was showing empty and flashing red. I'd taken 190 frames, saving as raw with JPEG sidecars, so it had written 380 files to the memory card, plus 11 minutes of video.
Admittedly these tests push the camera to more extreme degrees than regular use may do as they require more time spent using the display rather than letting it sleep, as I switch between the various settings. And an intensive day of switching it on and off will drain the battery more quickly as it needs to extend and retract the barrel each time.
However, as the EX2F doesn't ship with an external charger -- just a USB cable that plugs into the camera at one end and the adaptor at the other -- it means maintaining a second battery can be tricky. With a dedicated charger you could be out shooting while your second battery is back at base charging.
It was also a little slow saving the JPEG/raw combos at times -- often taking as long as 8 seconds to complete the operation when using a Class 4 memory card. Fortunately, the buffer is generous enough to allow you to carry on shooting, but it does mean the menus are out of bounds until it's finished writing, so if you want to make a quick change to focus mode or sensitivity in the interim, you can't.
The EX2F is a joy to use. It feels incredibly well built and it really would make a great second camera for professional and serious photographers who don't always want to carry around their dSLR.
There are plenty of high-end options and build quality is first class. Smart features like built-in Wi-Fi and the integrated neutral density filter, alongside the speed with which you can get to key settings courtesy of the double mode wheels, front-mounted scroller and quick menus, all count in its favour.
Samsung has priced it extremely competitively, so you're getting an awful lot for your money, especially when you compare it to the similar Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, which costs £500. Nonetheless, I'd like to see a camera at this level shipping with a separate battery charger. And access to the menus when it's saving your pictures would ensure you didn't miss the next frame if shooting a fast-changing scene.
In every other respect, where high-end compacts are concerned, this is among the best you can buy.