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NX1-16-50MM

Samsung NX1 digital camera review – a shooter that holds it own

A funny thing happens whenever I mention I’ve been using Samsung cameras. People tend to turn their noses up at the idea of a camera from a company best known for tablets and phones.

Well, the NX1 might just be the camera Samsung needs to break the stigma I keep running into because this is an exciting piece of kit.

The thrill of using a camera built to a new standard started when I first switched it on.

There, on the rear display, was a distance scale. Some readers might wonder what the big deal is. For the greybeards among us who cut their photography teeth on lenses with distance scales marked on the lens barrel, it’s a big deal.

See, we’ve watched them slowly disappear over the years from all but the top shelf lenses.

NX1-FRONT-1650MM-FLASH

I won’t waste many words explaining what this is all about. Those who understand will care as much as I do.

Those who don’t understand the significance need only realise that to an old hand, a distance readout (lens to point of focus distance, which is usually also lens to subject, in case you were wondering) indicates a manufacturer has put some thought into their camera design.

There’s much more to the NX1, of course. For a start, it feels lovely in the hand.

The review model was supplied with the rather hefty 16-50mm which felt front-heavy until I attached the vertical grip and the unit balanced agreeably.

Contouring on the grip is as close to perfect as I’ve ever encountered. I found it amazingly comfortable to handle, as if the grip had been moulded around my own hand.

The Samsung NX1 has a tilting AMOLED screen
The Samsung NX1 has a tilting AMOLED screen

The tilting, touchscreen rear AMOLED display is a gem. The colour is perhaps too good, even when you choose the menu option that eases the saturation. I say “too good” because it’s like a tiny high-def TV screen that may lead some shooters to be disappointed with the actual results they see on their computer.

This brings me to my first whinge, which concerns using the display’s double-hinged tilt action.

The action of the display is OK but to prise it from its resting position, you have to hook a fingernail into a small molding on the bottom left corner. I kept missing it or my nail slipped off the mark and it bothered me no end to struggle with it.

I found the control layout mostly good. The one thing that irked me was the knob on the top left that provides controls for AF type, ISO, White Balance, drive and metering modes.

To use that knob means abandoning your grip on the camera, which is a bit clumsy. Given that you can still easily adjust four of those settings with the right thumb in the shooting grip position, that knob seems a bit superfluous. I suppose some users may prefer the mechanical feel of changing those settings.

Delving into the technical specs for the NX1 reveals some very tasty features, not least of which is the sensor.

NX1-16-50MM

The NX1 houses an APS-C sensor, so it’s a move up from the Micro Four Thirds format but as a mirrorless design it doesn’t bulk out like a DSLR, which is an agreeable compromise in the size/weight stakes. It looks like a small DSLR but handles like a DSLM.

The BCI-CMOS sensor is backside-illuminated, which is supposed to provide for better performance in low light. My trials concur with the boast. Up to ISO 3200, image noise is quite acceptable. Beyond that, the noise signature leans towards agreeable, within reason.

What I particularly appreciate is the pixel dimensions of files from this sensor. At 6480×4320 pixels (delivering 28-megapixel files that come off the card as a RAW at between 24Mb and 38MB) this camera delivers a bigger pixel count than most full-frame cameras.

Does this translate to good detail capture? You bet it does. Better than a full-frame sensor? That’s a trickier question.

Too many variables are at play for a definitive answer but certainly a surprisingly good image quality for an APS-C and able to compete handsomely with other cameras in its class.

Speaking as a timelapse photographer, the pixel dimensions are a big deal to me because there is more elbow room for post-production trickery when you have about 2000 pixels either side of 4K output to play with. I was pleased to see a built-in intervalometer, too.

The Samsung NX1 has good dynamic range
The Samsung NX1 has good dynamic range

Letting the sensor down a bit, though, is the image processor’s JPEG handling. If you’re a pixel-peeper and fussy about image quality, and I suspect you would be to be attracted to this camera, there’s no way your workflow would stray from RAW files.

At 100 per cent, the JPEGs off the card look clumpy. Take a look around smooth curves and you’ll see jaggies that shouldn’t be there.

Indeed, they remind me of the JPEGs off my old Canon 50D. If there’s room for improvement with the NX1, this is where it should be.

Process the RAW and export a JPEG and you get a more satisfying result. Good thing there’s a copy of Lightroom 5 bundled with the camera.

Image captured with the Samsung NX1 at ISO1600 and cropped hard
Image captured with the Samsung NX1 at ISO1600 and cropped hard

I have to withhold critique of the 16-50mm lens. It’s hard to make a firm call on this because I’ve had no experience with Samsung’s NX lens range, other than what’s bolted to the NX300 and NX30 models.

I’d strongly recommend that you capture some test shots with more than one of Samsung’s NX prime lenses to satisfy yourself with the quality of the glass you’re buying. There are four primes in the NX lens range including an f1.4 80mm.

Be sure to assess your test shots using RAW. I will say the 16-50mm’s image stabilisation was not the best performer. With it enabled, I could still detect some outline ghosting, even at 1/50sec.

Video-wise, the NX1 has plenty of boasting rights, 4K capture using the H.265 codec being chief among them.

This codec is far more efficient than H.264 yet presents no discernible difference in image quality. This is most beneficial in reducing storage and bandwidth burden, though the down side is it’s not a widely used codec, but this will change.

Add to this a range of capture options from VGA to 4096×2160 at 24p plus fast/slow capture including 1/4 speed at 1080p and you have a capable video shooter on your hands.

What else did I like? Samsung has a nice flair for menu and interface design. This was a very easy camera to start working with, though recently I used a Lumix camera that scrolls a brief explanation of the menu choice you’re about to make, which really sets a standard in this regard.

Close up taken with the Samsung NX1
Close up taken with the Samsung NX1

That would be welcome on the NX1 given that eventually you will run into an option whose purpose isn’t entirely clear.

The hybrid AF is very responsive, with 205 points in phase detection AF and 209 points contrast AF.

All AF modes work very well, with excellent face detection and full auto generally doing a very good job of picking the right target inside the frame. Full marks for the AF, even in low light.

I found auto metering also excellent and was pleasantly surprised to see the camera detecting backlighting and compensating for it. It’s a smart cookie, this one.

I spent a lot of time playing with the panoramic capture, which works a treat, although it could do with variable exposure settings as the camera in full auto doesn’t account for the exposure variation across the sweep of the panorama.

The EVF might be the best I’ve yet used – bright, with very clear capture information and with a stated 5ms lag, it feels so close to real-time as not to matter.

The burst mode, up to 15fps with AF, could make the NX1 a terrific camera for action and sports photography, especially with a top speed of 1/8000, but with only the short lens in the review kit, I couldn’t adequately test this.

In any case, I had a lot of fun with it, though you’d want to choose one of the less demanding capture settings.

With RAW and Super Fine JPEG capture, you’ll be waiting a while for the buffer to write out the capture, even with a card with a fast write speed.

As for Wi-Fi options, Samsung was the first to offer it in a camera and the pedigree shows.

Wireless options are a breeze to put to work, though users with Android devices are better served than iOS users.

On the down side, I’ve always hated having to plug a camera in to a charging cable because it’s dead in the water while juicing up.

If you use the Wi-Fi a lot, you will find your NX1 needs to never be too far from an AC outlet. If this sounds like you, be sure to get the vertical grip as it houses an additional battery for longer battery duration

Interestingly, there’s a menu option for choosing which battery to draw power from: the battery in the grip, the battery in the camera body chamber, or auto switching.

I can’t imagine a scenario when you would not want to auto-switch from the drained battery to the charged one but Samsung’s engineers must have discovered a reason to offer the option. I’m sure one day someone will thank them for it.

Also leaving a positive impression was the SEF580A flash. With a guide number of 58, this flash has almost as much punch as my favourite speedlite, Canon’s 600EX, but it is way easier to use.

I was working my way through the settings with ease and putting high-speed sync to work at a fill flash setting in daylight with a fast shutter speed and it was refreshingly straightforward.

It was a challenge, however, to deploy the “wireless” flash system. Even so, you can’t compete in this space in the market without a functional tilt/swivel flash to offer buyers.

That there is one in the NX range is further evidence of Samsung’s commitment to satisfying the more demanding buyer.

What’s so interesting about Samsung’s attempt to attract the enthusiast photographer with the NX1 is that the company doesn’t have the baggage of a long-established brand burdened with having to build variations and improvements around its existing camera design paradigm.

The detail captured with the Samsung NX1 at  100 per cent
The detail captured with the Samsung NX1 at 100 per cent

Samsung has the freedom to approach its camera design differently and this makes the mere act of picking up the NX1 a refreshing exercise in image making.

Yes, it has minor shortcomings of the sort that will make brand loyalists continue to play in their own pen but for those photographers looking to step up to a versatile shooter that I’d class in the prosumer bracket, especially one with big files off an APS-C sensor and 4K capture, the NX1 is very much worth considering.

Also, given the increasing speed that clients want images off a camera and on to social media, the NX1’s Wi-Fi capabilities could come in very handy. Shoot it, send it, move to the next target. This might give some shooters in some situations a competitive edge.

The NX1’s got a lot on offer so be sure to examine the full feature list and make careful comparisons against its competition.

I suspect the biggest problem Samsung might face with this camera is the company’s short history of producing “serious” cameras but the NX1 should attract some respect from those willing to give it a go.

* Review written by professional photographer Chris Oaten from Insight Visuals

www.insightvisuals.com.au

Samsung NX1

Price: $1,899 (body only), Samsung 16-50mm F2-F2.8  – $1,499, Samsung 50-150mm F2.8 – $1,999

 

About Stephen Fenech

Stephen is the Tech Guide editor and one of Australia's most respected tech journalists. He is a regular on radio and TV talking about the latest tech news, products and trends.

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