A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the Pentax Optio VS20, a relatively inexpensive £145 long-zoom compact with some good features, but unfortunately let down by shockingly poor image quality. To prove that there can be such a thing as a good, cheap, travel camera, this week I'm taking a look at the Samsung WB750, a 12.5-megapixel compact camera featuring an 18x zoom Schneider-Kreuznach lens and full HD video recording, which is currently available from high street retailers for less than £160. In many ways, the WB750 is the camera that the Optio VS20 would have liked to have been.
Like most distinct types of camera, long-zoom compacts have evolved a standard set of design features over several generations, and the WB750 ticks all of the boxes. Physically, it's close to average for the breed, measuring 105 x 61 x 33mm closed, or 75.6mm deep with the lens fully extended, which is approximately the same size as the Optio VS20 and also the class-leading Panasonic TZ30. It weighs 218g including battery and card, which is a little heavier than the TZ30 and about 15 per cent heavier than the VS20.
The shape incorporates a small but functional handgrip, covered with a textured plastic surface, with the flash built into the front panel just far enough away from the grip to avoid knuckle shadows (Pentax please note). Like most travel cameras, the lens retracts into a bezel that stands about 8mm proud of the body line. The edges are bevelled (a bevelled bezel!) so it slips into your pocket quite easily and as usual, the lens has an automatic cover.
The overall design of the WB750 is rather utilitarian, with no decorative frills or flourishes, and it is available only in black. The body is half metal, half plastic, and the build quality is adequate, although it does creak a little if given a good squeeze. The control layout is sensible, with a main mode dial prominently positioned on the top panel, and a D-pad with a rotary bezel on the back surrounded by four well spaced-out single-function buttons. The labels on the buttons are grey rather than white, which on the black background makes them a little hard to see in low light, but they're fairly easy to remember so this isn't a major problem. I'm not usually a fan of rotary bezel controls, but the one on the WB750 is actually very good. It is just stiff enough to resist accidental jogs, while still being easy to use.
As you might expect from the world's largest manufacturer of flat-panel displays the monitor is very good, a 3in screen with a 460k dot resolution and a glare-reducing surface. It is very sharp and bright enough to use even in bright sunlight, and the viewing angle is excellent in all directions except, rather annoyingly, downwards, where the colours invert beyond about 45 degrees. The menu system is very well designed, with a nice clear high-definition font and full colour pictorial icons. Most of the camera's functions can be accessed very quickly via the "Fn" button menu, and changing settings is refreshingly easy.
Despite its relatively low price the WB750 isn't short on features. It has multiple exposure modes, including aperture and shutter priority and full manual exposure, which is a rarity on a camera in this class. It also has a range of automatic scene modes, including HDR capture and a 3D mode that apparently synthesises a stereoscopic image from a single frame, but you need an expensive Samsung 3D TV to view the results. Other creative features include spot, multi-zone and centre-weighted metering, single-point, multi-point and tracking AF, and a range of creative filter options.
The focal length range of the 18x zoom lens is equivalent to 24 - 432mm in 35mm format, which covers everything you're likely to need for most types of general photography. It has a close-focus distance of 3.5m at the telephoto end, but it also has a 5cm macro setting.
One stand-out feature is the video recording mode, which records in full HD 1,920 x 1,080 resolution at 30fps, with stereo audio recorded by a pair of microphones located on the top panel just above the lens. The sound quality isn't brilliant, and the stereo separation is barely noticeable, but the visual quality is very good. Unusually, full optical zoom is available while recording, and the zoom motor is quiet enough to be barely audible on the soundtrack. Video clip length is restricted to 20 minutes.
The WB750's overall performance is also much better than one might expect for the price. It can start up and take a picture in under three seconds, and in single-shot mode, the shot-to-shot time is approximately 1.8 seconds, which is pretty quick. It has no continuous drive mode as such, but it does have several burst shooting modes, which can shoot eight frames at 10, 5 and 3fps. It also has a "precapture" mode that shoots a continuous buffer of eight frames between a half-press and a full-press of the shutter button, so you won't miss a vital moment due to slow reflexes. It also has a multi-function bracketing option, which takes three photos with different brightness, style and white balance settings, although a simple exposure bracket might have been more useful.
The autofocus system isn't the fastest I've ever seen, but it is at least consistent. It takes approximately one second to focus at all focal lengths and in virtually all lighting conditions. It does stumble occasionally in very low light, but it has a bright amber AF assist lamp with a range of about two and a half meters, so it can focus in complete darkness at close range. At least if it can't focus it has the courtesy to let you know immediately rather than hunting around for several seconds.
Battery life is often a problem on long-zoom compacts, but not so for the WB750. It is powered by a fairly beefy 1,030mAh li-ion rechargeable, which is more powerful than most of its rivals. Over the course of a week, I took about 200 test shots starting from a full charge, as well as some video and a number of flash shots, and it was still showing one bar out of three on the level indicator at the end. I'd estimate the duration to be around 300 shots.
The WB750 is the latest camera to forego the trend towards ever-increasing sensor resolution, and is instead equipped with a 1/2.3in 12.5-megapixel back-side illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor. Back-side illumination is supposed to improve low-light performance and reduce noise at higher ISO settings by increasing the amount of light getting to the photocells, and in this case it does seem to work. Although there is some slight colour mottling even at 100 ISO, the WB750 produces usable images at 1,600 ISO, and even the maximum 3,200 ISO setting isn't completely terrible. Samsung has wisely avoided the temptation to add extended pixel-binned higher ISO settings.
In other respects, the image quality is adequate, although it falls a little short of brilliance. The level of fine detail is quite good, although it could be better. Colour rendition is a bit over-saturated and a little garish in bright sunlight, and dynamic range is nothing special either, which is surprising since that is supposed to be one of the strengths of the BSI sensor design. It does rather better with shadow detail than the Pentax VS20, but it still burns out highlights.
Rather unexpectedly, the optical quality of the Schneider-Kreuznach lens is slightly disappointing. It has no optical distortion at any focal length, but it is just a little bit soft, losing out on some fine detail. It also suffers from some slight chromatic aberration towards the edges of the frame, but I've seen a lot worse.
The WB750 is a true jack of all trades, although it is master of none. It has good overall handling and performance, still image and video recording quality is good enough for most purposes, and the addition of manual exposure modes and other creative features gives it some welcome versatility. While it's a bit dull to look at, it's a pleasantly easy camera to use and an excellent all-rounder. It's also good value.
Manufacturer: Samsung UK
Test Photos - ISO Performance
Here's the full frame at 100 ISO (click to enlarge). As usual, these ISO test shots were taken under tungsten studio lights using custom white balance. Results might be slightly better under daylight.
1/4 sec, f/4.4, 100 ISO. Even at 100 ISO there is some unevenness to the colour in the green areas, but the level of detail is good.
1/8th sec, f/4.4, 200 ISO. Colour mottling is a bit more noticeable at 200 ISO, but noise is not a problem.
1/15th sec, f/4.4, 400 ISO. At 400 ISO the noise reduction is starting to reduce image quality, but overall detail is still acceptable.
1/30th sec, f/4.4, 800 ISO. There's not a lot of difference between 400 and 800 ISO, but noise reduction effects are more visible.
1/60th sec, f/4.4, 1600 ISO. Noise reduction is really hitting the image quality at 1,600 ISO, but the result is still just about usable.
1/125th sec, f/4.4, 3,200 ISO. At the maximum ISO setting there is a lot of colour distortion and most detail has been lost, but it would probably still make a decent small print.
Here's the full frame at 3,200 ISO. (Click to Enlarge).
Test Photos - Lens distortion and detail performance
The optical quality of the Schneider-Kreuznach lens not as good as one might expect from that illustrious name, although it has no optical distortion even at the 24mm wide-angle end.
The lens is a bit soft even at the centre of the frame, which is surprising.
There is some chromatic aberration at the edges of the frame, but I've seen a lot worse.
It looks like another of my favourite test photo locations is getting covered in scaffolding. Shadow detail is at least better than the Optio VS20, but highlights are still burned out.
Here's my new standard detail shot, which you will be able to compare with other cameras. It's the 15th century carved door of 10 Cathedral Close, Exeter. Click to download the full-sized version, which is 6MB.
Here's a full zoom crop from the above image. The level of detail is quite good, but it is slightly over-sharpened.
Test Shots - Zoom, flash and general performance
The wide-angle end of the zoom is equivalent to 24mm.
The telephoto end of the zoom is equivalent to 432mm.
The built-in flash is a bit feeble, with a maximum range of only 3.5m and a long recharge time.
Colour reproduction is a bit over-saturated and garish, and the yellows are over-exposed.
The BSI sensor does provide good low-light performance. This glass-brick window was shot at night, with an exposure of 1/8th of a second at f/5.
The WB750 is a great all-rounder, and encourages creative photography.
A rare sight in England, a clear blue sky!