Its SLR-style design makes the Samsung Digimax Pro 815 very comfortable to hold, though you'll definitely want to use two hands when shooting with this camera. Front and back scroll wheels--tucked under the shutter and mode dial, respectively--let you control aperture and shutter settings, though a ring on the lens barrel also lets you change the aperture, much as a manual aperture ring would on some lenses. Another ring on the lens controls manual focus, while a third zooms the lens.
There are plenty of dedicated buttons for functions, such as ISO, autoexposure lock, autofocus lock, and more, though the bulky LCD screen leaves little room to include controls on the camera's back. Instead, a handful are tucked on the left rear of the lens barrel, others flank the top-panel LCD screen. While slightly unconventional, most of the important buttons are still accessible when shooting two-handed, though some, such as the AE-lock button, were slightly awkward to press. Also, the large LCD leaves little room for the electronic viewfinder, which is shoved to the far left, making it uncomfortable to use.
As you'd expect in a camera of this class, there are plenty of features, including raw and TIFF capture, full manual exposure controls, and the usual trio of multi, center, and spot metering. In addition to the camera's white-balance presets, there are two custom settings, as well as a selectable numerical Kelvin setting. But the customization doesn't stop with white balance. A custom function can be programmed to directly access the submenu of your choice, and three custom shooting modes--Samsung calls them MySet-- let you create your own shooting modes.
The Samsung Digimax Pro 815's performance was less than stellar in our tests. It took 2.2 seconds to start up and capture its first image, and images thereafter took 1.8 seconds without flash and 2.6 seconds with flash. But those sluggish numbers don't tell the whole story, since those refer to capturing JPEG images. Once you switch to raw or TIFF, things get really slow. The Pro 815 took 18.7 seconds between raw images, and a horrifically slow 28 seconds between TIFFs. Continuous shooting wasn't very fast either. At full resolution, the camera captured an average of 0.64fps, though it jumped to 2.62fps when capturing VGA resolution stills.
Automatic white balance did fine in natural daylight but yielded extremely warm images with our lab's tungsten lights. The tungsten preset was much more neutral, though still had a very slight greenish cast. The manual white balance provided the most neutral result.
Noise is probably the Pro 815's biggest liability. Even at ISO 50, there is noticeable noise which looks akin to what you might find at ISO 200 on cleaner cameras. At ISO 100, it becomes only more noticeable, though images are still usable. At ISO 200, noise became much worse, obscuring finer details, though images are still passable when printed on paper as large as letter size. At ISO 400, noise was so rampant that images were nearly unusable. Given that many cameras now yield acceptable images at as high as ISO 800--and sometimes higher--it's bad enough that the Pro 815's sensitivity extends only to ISO 400 and it's highly problematic that the camera has such high noise at ISO 200 and ISO 400.
As a precursor to Samsung's entry into the SLR market--and a statement by the company that it's serious about the camera market--the Digimax Pro 815 serves its purpose. It shows that Samsung has a handle on the systems and features that photographers want. Plus, more recent cameras, such as the most current L-series models, have shown that the company can deliver image quality better than that of the Pro 815. Given its flaws, it's difficult to recommend the Samsung Digimax Pro 815. If you're going to spend this much money on a superzoom, you're better off looking at the Canon PowerShot S3 IS or the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-H5.