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Just occasionally, a camera I buy on the off-chance comes out of nowhere and bludgeons me across the head with its sheer ability. The Samsung Digimax V5 is one such camera. I bought this, boxed and with all the trimmings, for £14, and I think it probably has a case for being considered one of the best photographic bargains I have ever managed to get. It is a tremendously nice camera, and the perfect proof that, with a bit of luck in finding such a gem in the first place, you don't need to spend a fortune to get lovely looking photographs.
The V5 is a five-megapixel camera dating back to 2005, yet it puts many modern models to shame with its build quality, which is - for this sector - absolutely superb. The case is half-metal and half-plastic, and feels tight and solid in my hand; there's none of the dreaded "body creak" you get from those cameras made of thin plastic and glued together any old how. The silver casing is simple but attractive, with a few discreet darker accents, and though I'm not always a huge fan of lenses pushed right over to one side, it works well enough here, especially since it keeps the lens well away from the (quite acceptable) flash.
Talking of lenses, this is one reason the V5 is such a good camera. Its 3x optical zoom lens is from the respected German outfit of Schneider-Kreuznach - not something you very often see on ordinary compact cameras - and is extremely well made. It is quite fast for this class of camera (f/2.7 at wide-angle; f/4.9 at full zoom) and whirrs in and out very smoothly, though not silently. The Samsung also benefits from a sensor size of 1/1.8", a bit larger than in most small compacts, which results in less image noise. Focusing is pretty quick, and the orange focus-assist lamp is accurate even in dark conditions. A slight shame it doesn't have more wide-angle (it's equivalent to a 38 - 114 mm lens) but it's not a major problem most of the time.
Unsurprisingly for an older digicam, the V5's LCD screen is fairly small, only 1.5 inches across in fact; but it is very clear and, for its age, pretty bright too; I certainly have no problem composing shots with it, even in the sunny conditions that fox many cameras' screens. You also get an optical viewfinder, and for a change this is a proper one and not just a tiny hole you can barely see through. Not only is it given a protective rubber surround, but - most unusually - it's actually positioned so that it is possible for a glasses-wearer like me to use it without my nose getting squashed up against the LCD screen!
The control buttons are a little different from those on most cameras. Pride of place is given to a satisfyingly large, oval four-way pad (with central OK button), and here too is the "review" button with which you can look at your already-taken snaps - this works even when the camera is powered off, incidentally - but the other three control buttons are positioned to the *left* of the screen, thus avoiding the problem of clutter that so many other models suffer from. The control buttons are small - very small to be honest - but they have a clear and definite action that is most reassuring, as is the grip, which though fairly discreet is rough enough to give confidence that the camera isn't going to slip out of your hand.
Modes on this camera are selected by - guess what? - a mode dial, which clicks through its settings very nicely, offering just enough resistance to stop you knocking it out of position without noticing. It's not all that large, but it's not so tiny as to feel fiddly in use. The zoom control is a standard horizontally-oriented rocker switch, which has a very slightly soft feel at times, but not enough to cause any real bother. The shutter button is not all that large, but like the other control buttons it has a nice, certain action that makes it easy to locate the half-press position for pre-focusing.
The power switch is unusual, in that you have to pull a small oval-shaped switch across to one side and hold it there for a few seconds before the camera will power up. This is excellent for stopping you turning the V5 on by mistake when it's in a bag or pocket, but it does contribute to the Samsung's only significant fault: it is not the fastest camera on the block at getting going. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, even if you have forced the flash to "always off", it will be charged whenever you turn the camera on; it takes about five seconds between turning the V5 on and being able to take the first photo, which is rather worse than average however you look at it.
You're not short of things to play with on this camera. As well as a simple Auto option, it offers the standard "PASM" modes - program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and full manual - although, rather irritatingly, there is only one spot on the mode dial for the last three, and you have to choose between them via the on-screen menu system. There are nine scene modes, which interestingly and unusually include separate settings for "dawn" and "sunset", and a separate night shot mode. A really welcome feature is the presence of a "MySET" position on the mode dial; this allows you to save, then in the future quickly select, your preferred settings. A lot of much more expensive cameras lack this. Finally, there's one of the better manual-focus options I've seen on a compact.
There are a lot of options in the menus, too, especially if you are not using the Auto mode. As you'd expect, there's exposure compensation, though it's only available in half-stop steps, rather than the more common third-stop. There's white balance, including a pretty decent manual WB option. You can set the sharpness to high, normal or low. You can (thank goodness!) set the ISO - 50, 100, 200, 400 or the default of Auto. And if you're feeling vaguely old-fashioned, or silly, or both, you can give your photographs a black & white or sepia tinge. You also get a very basic "burst mode", though the camera's memory buffer can only handle two shots in quick succession at high resolution.
The V5 also has two much less common options. Firstly, you can choose to take photos in TIFF format; this is not subject to any in-camera compression in the way that JPG files are, which means that the files are very large, but also that if you're a whizz with Photoshop you can do all sorts of fancy post-processing to get things looking just right. (The rest of us should just leave it on Super Fine!) The other option is *extremely* unusual on a compact like this: you can set red, green and blue saturation, separately for each colour, in no fewer than 16 steps! Though the default settings are fine for most purposes, I was very impressed to see this level of colour control available.
The movie mode on this Samsung is pretty good for its vintage: a lot of cameras in 2005 could still only manage tiny, jerky films, but the V5 offers VGA resolution at 30 fps. The sound is only in mono, and you can't use the optical zoom while filming, but the resulting movies (which are in AVI format) look acceptable. Movie length is limited only by space on the card, which makes a nice change. There's also an audio recording mode, which captures sounds (again in mono) in WAV format; this obviously takes up much less room than video, and you can fit hours and hours on a normally-sized memory card.
When this camera was new, Samsung made great play of its ability to use any one of "9 power sources", but that was a bit of a dodgy claim, since (for example) the company treated alkaline, lithium, NiCad and NiMH AA-format batteries as four separate options! Suffice it to say that, as usual, high-capacity NiMH rechargeables are the way to go here; battery life on this camera is about average, so on a full day's shooting you might want to carry a spare charged-up set as reassurance. The camera takes standard SD cards; a 1 GB card will allow almost 400 photos at Super Fine resolution.
I am very happy indeed with the quality of the pictures I have produced with this camera. Colours are very well balanced, bright and vibrant but not over-saturated (unless you set them that way!) and the V5 copes startlingly well, for this class of camera, with high-contrast scenes such as you get on very bright days; sky detail is virtually never washed out even in strongly backlit photos. There's also a refreshing absence of the distracting over-sharpening effect produced by the excessively enthusiastic in-camera processing carried out by many digicams. In short, photos taken with this thing look great, just about every time.
As if it weren't already obvious, I love this little Samsung, and think it is a super camera even today. If it weren't for its slowness on starting up, it would be an easy five-star model. As it is, it's four and a half, but it's such an enjoyable camera to use that I'm going to round it up anyway. It's hard to say what you should expect to pay for one of these, since there aren't many on the second-hand market; probably their owners are hanging on to them! My personal view, though, is that £14 was a stunning bargain, and that despite its age this would not have been left behind at three times that price. A great camera, and highly recommended.