Capable but Complicated: The Samsung Maxima Zoom 105

The late 1990's brought us such bits of pop culture and technology such as the Furby, Pokemon, and the Sony Playstation.  This period also represented the final era of innovation in film cameras across the entire breadth of the field, with a digital revolution set to take hold in the new millennium.  The result is an interesting, but now often forgotten period which saw camera makers cram as much technology as possible into the range of their offerings, some of which were great, and some of which were gimmick. Still, shooting with a camera of this era that benefits from affordable advances in technology provides an interesting look into what could have been, had the progression of film camera development not been all but derailed by the advent of consumer digital imaging.      

I'm the kind of "Photo Geek" who admits to often liking a camera with little to no extra features, and have enjoyed shooting many rolls of film on cameras that lacked control of focus, and had no variability of aperture or shutter speed.  On the other side of the coin, I've also found any number of situations where I savored a shooting experience rich in control or extra features.  These have most typically been found on midrange or higher 35mm SLR cameras.  But not always.  Meet the Samsung Maxima Zoom 105.

Introduced in the mid-1990's, the Maxima Zoom is, at least on paper, a photo-geek's compact dream. In fact, I can clearly recall browsing issues of Popular Photography, and seeing the feature set of this camera and being astonished at all (including some features that I didn't even understand) that it was packing in the rather compact form factor of a zoom point and shoot.  This degree of functionality really only put a blip on the radar of the industry at the time, perhaps largely since this was a camera made by what was then a manufacturer on the periphery of the market, and looked rather pedestrian.

Unlike the typical consumer "P&S" cameras of the era, whose "features" were often limited to little more than a power zoom, a flash force button, and a self-timer button, with high end models featuring add-on modes such as "Portrait," Action," and "Landscape," the Samsung touted previously unheard of advanced features such as multiple exposures, an intervalometer, exposure compensation, and true "Bulb" mode shooting, some of which were features absent even in many SLR cameras of the era.  Around 1998, I briefly toyed with the idea of adding one of these feature-rich little cameras to supplement my SLR at the time, but couldn't justify the cost, so I picked up an inexpensive Pentax camera to supplement my Canon. 

Fast forward a decade and change, and I'm in one of the local Goodwill stores.  There amid some far more basic Point and Shoot cameras sits a Samsung Maxima Zoom for the hefty price tag of $4.  I jumped at the chance to pick up this capable camera and give it a whirl.  

It soon became pretty apparent that I was lacking a crucial bit of information to use the camera: the manual.  See, the Maxima Zoom is a complex little machine, and one whose myriad of features and controls are set through a modest assortment of buttons that loop through these settings.  Some of the items in this loop also allowed user input to change the desired parameters, but how?  As it turns out, the manual for the Maxima Zoom 105, unlike many other film cameras, is not readily available online, despite it being less than 20 years old, and being born during the advent of "the information age."  I had to spend a decent amount of time toying with these buttons to figure out the array of settings available in this camera.

As it turns out, the majority of the features in this camera are set using only three buttons. It is certainly a product of an era that spawned another craze that involved a rather rich dynamic experience done with only three buttons: the Tamagotchi.  Fortunately, unlike the aforementioned virtual pet, one doesn't have to "feed" a Samsung Maxima Zoom 105, but one does need to understand its elaborate menu set up if they are to use the full breadth of settings. 

Nearly all the feature control of the Maxima Zoom 105 is through the three buttons at left, and detailed in the text.  The zoom rocker and shutter release are in typical positions, while the rear holds the power button, as well as a button for the so-called "Macro" and "Super Macro" modes. 

Below is a chart I made for my own use as a "cheat sheet" to understanding the use of the Samsung and its settings. I've never had to make such a thing for any other camera I've owned.  Generally, the features are accessed through two "loops" that are cycled through using either the MODE or FLASH buttons, from the normal intial setting of "Standard" mode with "Auto Flash." From that starting point, the user can customize their experience with the Samsung.  For menu options that offer additional customization, the user can hold down the SET button and use the zoom rocker switch to cycle through the various options.  

This whole process is hardly what I'd call "intuitive" but it does make for a camera with a wealth of additional features at a reasonable price point.  The result, however, is an interface that can be laborious at times.  Add in that some of the features, such as BULB seem at first to be on the wrong menu (until one realizes that having a combination of "Auto Flash" and "BULB" would have been asking for trouble) and it takes considerable time to learn this camera.  It's also too easy to cycle past a setting in haste, requiring even more button pushing to go back through the loop to bring up the option again.  Oh, and add in that the settings RESET to the defaults after every shot, and the result gets tedious.  This camera is hardly set up to shoot multiple night time exposures on an outing, nor is it easy to readily go back and snap another self-timer shot when you realized your toddler's attention was elsewhere. 

Still, the arrangement of these options into the two loops does foster a degree of creativity that few if any point and shoots can match. Fill flash on a portrait framed shot is easy to tackle, and when a user is ready to get a "Masters Degree" in this camera, they can attempt a triple exposure in which one image has exposure compensation of -1 stop, where the other two may have exposure compensation of -1.5 and -2 stops.  The feature set on this is staggeringly robust for a point and shoot. 

The small LCD panel provides all the shooting information at a glance, and the tendency to use words over graphical icons did make it easier for me to decode most of the features of the camera without a manual In the above, the zoom is set to a 90mm focal length in Portrait mode, with fill in flash turned on.  Below, flash is forced off as shown by the wording beside the border, while EV compensation is set to 1.5 stops of overexposure.   

In fact, there are still features whose purpose I am still trying to decode, given the sparse documentation on the web.  One of these is FUZZY mode, which, contrary to its name (and an internet write up that only adds to the confusion), does not deliberately blur ones photos in a smear.  My presumption given what I can vaguely recall of the technological pushes of the era in which it was released, is that the camera is attempting to use a "fuzzy logic" to determine either zoom and/or exposure.  In the case of the latter, I'm not sure if it detects motion or backlight in the scene to adjust exposure settings.  And there of course exists the possibility that this mode does none of these possibilities. Update: See more on this below.

Among the more frivolous modes to me are STEP and INTERVAL.  The former simply seems like a waste of film, allowing the user to zoom in to pull in a scene at an outer zoom level, select a number of shots to take, after which the camera will zoom out and progressively capture wider shots of the same scene.  The INTERVAL feature allows the camera to shoot additional exposures at set intervals until cancelled.  An oft desired feature in some advanced SLR cameras, I honestly have no use for it, save to maybe perch the camera in a window and show the progressive accumulation of snow over the course of a day.

The only other control is a small button conveniently placed below the flash to force focus to infinity, particularly helpful if shooting from behind a window that fouls the autofocus.

The Multi-Self Timer feature could come in handy when you want to shoot more than one posed shot from a tripod, and the multiple exposure feature is another fun extra to have at your arsenal (though I seem to think both shots need to be taken in the same session to avoid the camera resetting). Practically speaking however, my two main favorites from the menu above are BULB and Exposure Compensation.  Having these in a point and shoot is a really great thing, and in the case of the latter, particularly helpful when you learn the limitations of the camera's exposure system.  Few things are worse in a point and shoot than being limited to what you can do, and with these two items, the Samsung is able to venture into territory that will render most point and shoot cameras all but useless. The Maxima 105 is able to capture long night time exposures (with and without flash) as well as to enable a rudimentary bit of bracketing in tough lighting situations.  The only catch, as mentioned earlier, is that all these settings reset to default after each exposure.

Needless to say, even after learning the involved methods to apply the various modes and settings, the camera still feels a bit laborious to use in any but the most basic of set ups.  The cantankerous combination of toggling items using the buttons combined with holding the SET button and using the zoom to customize these settings feels anything but intuitive.  As a result, these extra settings feel more like "workarounds" than true "features," though to be fair, these extras were likely not intended for continual use, and it's reassuring to know that this camera can be grabbed for one of these special situations in a pinch.

I took the Maxima Zoom 105 out with me on a few summer days, first with some Kodak TMAX 100, and later with some Lomography 100 CN, to try the wealth of feature capabilities as well as to push the zoom range and macro capabilities to see what this late 90's piece of technology was capable of capturing.   

I start with simply a normal shot taken wide open under average flat light to use as a baseline.

Ability to force the flash off was helpful in this available light shot, under which many point and shoot cameras would simply produce a very dim image.  The Samsung comes through in portraying the scene with good contrast and exposure.  Lacking the camera's specifications, I'm not sure what the exposure time on the program is, but imagine it is 1/30 or slower.

If there was one major issue I had with the Maxima Zoom's features, it would be its use of the term "Macro."  Despite attempting to focus on the leaf in the middle, it seems the nearest the camera could focus was more distant, about 4 feet away.  There is also a "Super Macro" setting, but I'd have thought that term more suited for subjects within 1 foot.  Not so much.

The metering system in the Samsung could be thrown at times.  This contrast laden shot in noon day sun shows washed out features around the door.  

Another shot zoomed partially outward shows the Samsung performing quite admirably in recording a sharp and well exposed image.  

The widest the Maxima will zoom out is a 38mm focal length, decent for most landscape environments.  Note some light fall off around the corners of the image. 

I was "fuzzy" as to what the FUZZY mode sought to do with this scene.  I selected FUZZY, aimed and shot, and the camera did nothing noticeable to the exposure of the image, nor to the zoom level.  

The zoom lens is well used in some moderation.  Zoomed out to about 60mm, it takes nice photos with generally crisp sharpness. 

Appaently, this subject distance of about 4 feet should have qualified as a "macro" image.  Actual focus seems to be on the marble column behind the iron work.  Some parralax error made it tough to update to properly compose this scene to even make it look like a logical composition.

A wider angle shot, again showing a hint of darkening on the corners.  Still, some very good sharpness in the resulting image.

Backlit from the sky, this scene was aided by the ability to add 1.5 stops of exposure using the EV compensation option.  The range of this option extends from 3 stops over to 3 stops under in 1/2 stop increments. 

The availability of a bulb setting for time exposures had been one of my main points of interest in this camera, even from when I first knew of its existence when it first came out.  While I'm not entirely sure what aperture setting is used during bulb exposures, I'd presume it to be mostly, if not all the way open.  In spite of this, the Maxima Zoom gives some great results atypical of the usual point and shoot experience after dark. 

Another bulb shot taken shortly after the first two.  The annoying interface of the camera required me to cycle through to find the setting again for this image.

Step Mode was one of the more pointless options to me.  In this "series," the camera starts with an exposure from a zoomed in focal length, adding in more exposures taken from a wider perspective.  

"Portrait" mode seems to open the aperture up fully to soften backdrops.  Of course, the widest aperture on such a wide ranging zoom is expectedly narrow, so minimizing depth of field will only go so far in muting background details. 

Multiple Exposure mode is an interesting creative option.  In this shot, I simply took two images a few moments apart from the same vantage point to illustrate it from a technical perspective.  Note the ghosting of the figures in the center of the frame. 

Extending the zoom fully results in some degradation of image quality, in the sharpness and chromatic aberration.  Still, the presence of a rather capable zoom is nice to have as an option to compress image backdrops somewhat. 

Another bulb shot attempt with color film does show a soft but nicely defined result.

The 105mm zoom isn't going to pull much in, but does at least help in putting one's subject matter more prominent in an image.

A comparison of wide and tele focal lengths on the Maxima Zoom.

There were some results when subjects lacked true snap and contrast, such as seen here.

But under good lighting, the camera could even give adequate sharpness at the 105mm end.

The Samsung doesn't do the best job at stopping even the most modest of action.  Note the blur in the numbers under the right headlight of the bus.

Color rendition from the Samsung lens is certainly quite accurate.

In open shade, the camera still does a good job of rendering color.  

The Samsung Maxima Zoom 105 is a camera that seemingly attempts to pull every possible desirable feature for a photo geek into a menu interface consisting of three buttons used (at times) in conjunction with the zoom switch.  The result is an experience that can be laborious and discouraging at times, but thankfully not overwhelmingly so.  After all, few compact cameras offer such a range of features in their offerings.  As such, it is refreshingly nice to at least have these features buried within the settings in the event you may need them.  

If I had a time machine and could influence the designers of the Maxima, I'd likely plead to drop silly settings such as the STEP feature, while also adding a HOLD button of sorts to allow the feature combination dialed up to be retained on subsequent exposures until either the camera was turned off or this button was pressed again.  For all of its quirks, perhaps none is as tiresome as attempting to shoot two shots off within seconds of each other, but having to dance through the menus to reapply the settings a second time.  

Still, for what it is capable of, and for the era in which it debuted, the Maxima Zoom 105 is nothing short of amazing for a point and shoot camera.  And given that this rather unstylish model has been largely overlooked by film camera collectors for often flashier models with a less robust feature set, the Samsung Maxima Zoom 105 is an absolute steal in today's used camera market.  Despite it's shortcomings, I can still recommend it should you spot it for sale for under the $20 mark.  It's not the most fun you will ever have shooting a camera, but you will grow to appreciate its rather awkwardly accessed versatility!  All of this assumes you can get over its rather bland looks.  This isn't a camera to look "cool" holding, and its not a camera for those who are sticklers about image quality or creative control.  It's also not a macro camera, despite its feature named as such.  What it manages to be is a handy tagalong for times when you just want a point and shoot camera for 80% of your general purpose photos, but would like a little bit of extra capability to handle a few unique situations.  

PS: If the laborious button pushing is too great a turn off however, there may be a better option in the Samsung Maxima Zoom 140.  Sporting an even longer zoom (likely with the image quality risks of such a zoom), this camera has many of the functions moved to a dial, albeit rather awkwardly placed on the front of the camera.   For a more unique alternative to the "1990's Champagne Chic" of these cameras, another Samsung option is the F.A. Porsche designed ECX-1

PPS: The above link to the ECX-1 decodes the mysterious "fuzzy" setting.  It is in fact a fazzy logic setting that will zoom inwards to reduce camera shake on an image if it detects use of a shutter speed to low to accomodate the chosen focal length!