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Johnny Wilson
  • Johnny Wilson

Samsung Galaxy Camera - the first Android powered camera

It's fair to say, I think, that the consumer compact digital camera market is pretty much officially dead. I mean, you can still pick up a pricey IXUS from Canon nowadays but their focus is very much more on more high end models, and there are still some budget offerings to be found from brands masquerading as photography titans from the past like "AGFAPhoto" and "Kodak" but at a casual level; the advancements in smart phone technology mean that most people don't really need to carry a compact camera on them any more. You just use your phone right? But that wasn't always the case! Camera technology in smart phones has come on leaps and bounds in the last 10 years with Apple claiming their iPhone cameras rival quality comparable to that that can be found by shooting with a DSLR* but it has taken some time to get to this stage and if we rewind back 10 years to the infancy of the smart phone era, phone camera technology just wasn't quite there yet in comparison with the compact digital camera. Although your iPhone 4 or your Samsung Galaxy S3 might have had a decent enough snapper there was still a healthy market for having a dedicated digital camera with a decent zoom length capable of shooting much more detailed and much more balanced photos than those that you maybe got out of your little smart phone. I'm mean, sure the writing was on the wall at this point, but not everyone was transitioning from just using their phone. At least, not yet. Samsung was kind of in a unique position at the time. They had an established compact camera division and the Galaxy range of smart phones was quickly gaining traction as the Android alternative to the iPhone and perhaps spotting a niche that hadn't quite yet been filled, or perhaps suspecting their camera division was about to completely collapse along with the rest of the market... they came up with the ingenious idea of smushing these 2 products together and bringing to the market the first (so far as I am aware...) Android powered compact camera: The Samsung Galaxy Camera EK-GC100!

I had a Galaxy S3 at the time and I remember really wanting one of these. But they retailed at something bananas like £599 or something (that was alot of money for a smart phone back then!). I was already pretty into photography by this point and the idea of having a cutting edge Android powered camera I felt would have just massively upped my photography game. That and it looked fun to play with! But I was stuck with my S3 for at least 2 years and by the time my contract ended the Galaxy Camera bubble had well and truly burst. And that's something of a shame really, because I've spent a couple of weeks with my newly purchased second hand Galaxy Camera and I have really enjoyed using it! Retrospectively the camera suffers from being stuck with what is now a well antiquated version of Android and there is noticeable lag and freezing and crashing (which, if I'm being honest was a bit of a problem for Android and TouchWiz at the time 10 years ago...) but in terms of operation, I've found the camera really easy and straightforward to use. Combined with being just about compact enough that it can be carried around but weighty enough that it feels like a proper sturdy camera in your hands, it has actually been fun to use!

The Galaxy Camera packs a 35mm equivalent 23 - 483mm f2.8-f5.9 lens with 21x optical zoom and a 23mm focal length at its widest angle. Inside is a 16 megapixel CMOS sensor with a ISO range of 100 - 3200, a shutter speed range from 1/2000 to a whole 16 seconds and a built in pop up flash that is enabled or disabled with a little button on the side of the camera. The camera body is moulded to have a nice hand grip on the right hand side which increases it's bulk but makes it much easer to hold like a "proper" camera and just above it is a rocker built in to control the zoom length. There is also a handy little tripod mount built in to the body at the bottom. The firmware is Samsung's proprietary TouchWiz software built on Android 4.1 with a firmware update to 4.1.2 available, which I installed, and the camera comes with an initial 8gb of storage expandable via a dedicated micro SD card slot. In terms of operation the camera immediately launches the stock Camera app on bootup but one press of the home icon and you are on the main menu. By default you can unlock straight into the Camera app which does save the annoyance of having to go into it from the home screen every time you lock the camera. The dedicated stock Camera app covers most of the basics with an 'Auto' mode that does all the work for you and to be honest, I mostly just shot with it left in Auto whilst I was using it. I took it around with me for a couple of weeks and shot some photos and video to see how it performed:

Initially I am pretty happy with my photos! Respectfully the camera is only 10 years old at this point, which really isn't that old in camera technology terms when much older cameras I've used like the Traveller DC or Olympus Brio will produce almost comparable photos, so not sure why my expectations were so low... ! But genuinely, I'm really pleased with the pics. They look sharp, clear and the colours well balanced and not really too far away from being on par with my much newer Canon SX720. If I have one complaint is that I find the built in exposure compensation can be incredibly harsh and it underexposed my photos alot. Although I have been shooting in quite bright sunlight to be honest. Aside from that though, I have very little in the way of complaints about the quality of the pics I've got out of it and the 21x optical zoom is great. It's here where the camera really finds it's distinction. It's all good and well having a much improved camera apparatus being fused into your smartphone, but sticking a 21x optical zoom on it just opens up so many more avenues, photographic wise, than you would otherwise get with a standard camera. I found myself stuck between 2 different focal lengths occasionally as it wasn't a "true" unrestricted zoom and instead magnifies in stages but if you can compromise with it and work around that you can really begin to get some genuinely impressive compositions:

Aside from shooting Auto, the dedicated Camera app also gives you a handful of "Smart" photo settings. For the most part all these do is change the settings of the camera to better suit a particular shooting situation. For example "Waterfall" mode slows your shutter speed down, "Night" bumps your ISO and aperture up. There are a whole bunch of others that you can choose between that will help you get the better photo however I didn't test them out. Inside that same menu though there is the option to shoot Panorama photos which I always like to play around with so I had a shot at doing a few of those:

That last one, Coventry Cathedral square being the absolute maximum limit in terms of size that you can shoot and was almost a 360 degree rotation from start to beginning! Having the ability to stitch together panoramas like this all inside camera is a really great feature and I could get some serious use out of this. My only niggle is that at a focal length of 23mm it's not quite wide enough to take full advantage, but you can still get some pretty impressive panoramics. I also had a little play with Macro mode and got a few shots, but to be honest I'm not a great Macro photographer and I never know if what I'm accomplishing with this could be done with the camera just set up normally in Auto anyway!

But I guess they turned out ok? The third shooting mode available from the app is "Expert" which gives you full manual control over ISO, EV (which I know more familiarly as exposure compensation), Aperture and Shutter Speed using the familiar PASM shooting modes. I usually like to have more manual control over my camera when shooting so I usually default straight to "M" setting with any camera I pick up, so I put the Galaxy Camera through a bit of a test having more manual control and I felt that sometimes it made a difference being able to dial around settings to get a better exposure, especially given that you can only shoot JPEGS here, but it did take me some toying around to really learn how the camera exposes and processes images before I got used to settings that worked best for me. I don't know if that comes down to age of the sensor or the processing taking place inside the camera but I found bumping the ISO up to 800 and the shutter speed right up to 1/2000 produced better results? Something I wouldn't usually do with my high end Compact cameras?

But in any event, the option is there, and better to have it than to not. I would honestly just keep the camera in Auto setting most of the time though, or maybe only have 1 or 2 variables under control rather than shoot in full manual the whole time. Finally there is also the option to shoot video but, unless it's buried in a menu somewhere I couldn't find, only at 1920 x 1090 at 30 fps. That is perfectly fine really, and actually pretty decent for the age of the camera. It's going to play back just fine on larger screens. I recorded a bunch of clips and put them all together in the below montage:

I found it a little bit tricky to keep the camera picture steady whilst recording, especially at the maximum zoom length... but in terms of quality and sharpness, it's pretty decent quality video. Although I think it's here that I need to sort of come clean about something; my poor little Galaxy Camera appears to have suffered some damage! It's cosmetically in pretty decent condition, there are some marks and scuffs to the corners but there appears to be a scratch or a mark on the lens that only shows up in direct sunlight at a certain angle. I hadn't noticed this until taking the photos and video off the camera and I did have to go through and touch up a whole handful of photos where it had blemished the shot. I'm usually pretty lucky with my second hand finds, but unfortunately here it looks like my Galaxy Camera has some war scars.

Being an Android powered camera, I also decided to take advantage of the fact that you had access to the Google Play store and with it a whole plethora of camera apps. Regrettably being on aged firmware, support for a good number of apps has since been pulled, like Instagram for example will not run on a device running Android 4.1.2, but there is still a pretty decent selection of apps out there that will run and I downloaded my favourite alternative camera app; Vignette and set up a filter I used to use on my old Android phones to shoot these kind of retro, colourised faux instant photos and took a handful of snaps:

I had a lot of fun with this and this is one of this cameras strongest features. Sure these are gimmicky and fun enough, but with the right app and with serious application, you could produce some really creative and experimental photos that are all managed in camera rather than have to go through any work in post prod. I don't think even modern cameras have really caught up with this yet in terms of in camera filters e.t.c.

Although the Galaxy Camera was impressive for it's time, and as I've learnt after playing around with it, a more than capable bordering on mid-range powerhouse of a camera, it was regrettably received far less favourably at the time. Samsung went on to make a second iteration; the Galaxy Camera 2 which came out on 2014, ran Android 4.3 and tweaked and improved on the original in a couple of areas, but it gained little traction in the market and Samsung ultimately abandoned the idea shortly after. There was no Galaxy Camera 3 but the phone camera hybrid approach survived with the Galaxy S4 Zoom and Galaxy S5 Zoom as well as the Samsung NX mirrorless DSLR. I feel to a degree, they were maybe a bit too early to the market? Combining that with the fact these were not cheap devices at the time of release, and it really narrows down your customer base. But I have enjoyed getting to play with one again even if it is 10 years later down the line and although it might not have revolutionised the compact camera industry at the time of it's release it is a bit of photographic history; the first foray into a globally connected camera with customisable, expandable firmware.


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