Samsung NX1 Field Test Part I

Initial Impressions

by Gannon Burgett | Posted

50-150mm f/2.8 S OIS lens: 150mm, f/3.2, 1/800s, ISO 3200, manual exposure

[Default ACR conversionEdited version]

[Writer's note: I shot exclusively in RAW format and created edited JPEG versions. We've also provided default conversions using Adobe Camera Raw for each image, and the RAW files are available for download in the gallery as well.]

Introduction

When Samsung first announced the NX1, I knew I wanted to get my hands on it. As a DSLR shooter who has been patiently watching the mirrorless game to see which company could pull me in, it seemed likely that if anyone was going to do it, it'd be Samsung. With a familiar form factor, an impressive spec sheet and overall appeal, I was smitten, and anxious to get my hands on it. After arriving here at Imaging Resource, that opportunity arose, and led to this first installment of a shooter's report.

Although I've shot a myriad of subject matter in my photography career, this shooter's report will be written through the eyes of a sports photographer, as Samsung's NX1, both in looks and specs, is an action photographer's camera. To properly put the NX1 through its paces, I spent a handful of days shooting it in two very different sporting environments: a hockey game and an indoor men's collegiate volleyball match.

Below are my thoughts on the camera, its capabilities and my overall experience shooting with it. This is just a brief initial hands-on, and we'll be bringing you more in-depth performance analysis in a follow-up report.

Design & Construction

In pictures, the Samsung NX1 looks like most any DSLR. It shows the signature bulge where the viewfinder and flash are typically located, it features a prominent, right-handed grip as is the norm and its overall control/button scheme is familiar to anyone who has shot a DSLR. Where it differentiates itself as a mirrorless amongst DSLRs is size. Comparing it to my full-frame Canon 5D Mark III, the Samsung is dramatically smaller (and lighter), despite looking similar in almost every regard.

This seemingly minor aspect of the camera has proven to be one of my favorites, as when compared to my 5D Mark III with a 70-200mm f/2.8 attached, the Samsung and its 50-150mm f/2.8 is beyond a breeze to carry around all day at a sporting event. So much so that I actually had to double-check my BlackRapid Double Strap multiple times to ensure it was still by my side.

Despite its small size, Samsung doesn't appear to have shrunken any of the conveniences DSLRs offer, such as plenty of physical controls and a top panel LCD. In fact, they managed to squeeze in even more, keeping only what's needed without any cruft.

Buttons, Dials and the OLED Touchscreen

Specifically, the buttons on the NX1 stand out to me amongst the options and capabilities other camera manufacturers offer at this price point. On top of the camera, you have two main dials. On the left-hand side, the dial serves a dual purpose, clicking into place to control the drive modes (single-shot, continuous normal, continuous high, self-timer and bracketing) and offering four buttons on the top to easily change AF, ISO, metering and WB settings.

The right-hand dial serves but one purpose -- to control what shooting mode you're in. As is familiar amongst prosumer cameras, it offers program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, two custom modes, Smart mode and full auto. In Smart mode -- which is Samsung's name for scene mode -- you can select from ten options including Panorama, Multiple Exposure and Samsung Auto Shot.

One aspect of these dials that can't go without mentioning is the manner in which they both 'snap' into place. It's a seemingly small aspect, but when you're changing settings without looking at the camera and you have your camera swinging around your shoulder while running from end-to-end of a sporting event, you want to know you're getting things right and that they'll stay that way.

Both dials feature a milled outer edge that gives a solid grip and nice tactile feel when snapping through their respective settings. On the right-hand dial, there's a dedicated button in the center to properly lock the dial into place, to make sure you're not bumping the camera from manual to auto when it's by your side. The only complaint I have there is that it can be difficult to tell when the button is locked or upright, as it's a small difference.

On the back of the camera, Samsung provides a fairly standard set of buttons -- eight to be exact (twelve if you count the four directional buttons on the rotating wheel). By default, the wheel does nothing in capture mode, however it can be programmed to adjust shutter speed, aperture, ISO, AF size, EV or mic level.

As has become standard for many prosumer cameras on the market, the NX1 also features two one-axis command dials located where your pointer finger and thumb rest, which are used to control adjustments such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation and program shift depending on the current exposure mode and the customization options you've selected. You can even change the directions of the dials to match the system you're used to. Unlike the larger dials on the top, these two dials don't offer the same satisfying 'snap', which often led to me over-adjust when trying to make changes. This, of course, would likely change with extended use.

The NX1 provides an AF ON button as found on many pro cameras, but the behavior when using it is a little quirky here, especially if you want true back-button focusing. While the AF ON button can be set to initiate AF, AF lock as well as metering + AF start or AF lock, you can't program the shutter button to disable its AF start behavior when half-pressing. If you press the AF ON button to focus on a subject, let go of the rear button, and then recompose and press the shutter button halfway, the camera will re-focus again. However, if you press and hold the AF ON button down, the shutter button will not re-focus. It's a little tricky to get used to, and something, I think, Samsung could easily fix in a future firmware update.

Of course, I can't mention all of the buttons without talking about the most important one, the shutter release. The shutter button on the NX1 is quite prominent, especially compared with its larger, DSLR counterparts. This is partly due to the shutter release being surrounded by the on/off switch, but I feel it is also done to make it easy to locate when you're quickly grabbing your camera to take a shot. The button itself is quite springy compared to other cameras I've shot and features a decent 'trigger point' where you go from activating autofocus to actually triggering the shutter.

I'd be remiss to make note of all of the physical buttons without pointing out the OLED touchscreen. Bringing over Samsung's know-how from their smartphone lineup, the NX1's touchscreen is one of the best I've used. It's responsive and bright, and its tilting capabilities make it simple to use at almost any angle. As with all articulating screens, its ruggedness concerns me a little, as the hinge that holds it to the main camera body seems fragile and looks like it could be easily bent if bumped while opened.

Camera Body

As someone with a background in design, there's little I appreciate more than a well-designed piece of gear that looks and feels like it's built to last. Considering they're aiming for the more 'pro-level' market, Samsung opted for a magnesium, unibody design -- something both Canon and Nikon offer in their higher-end cameras.

This, along with intelligent placement of internal components gives the NX1 a very solid feeling in the hands, despite being much smaller than the DSLRs I'm used to shooting. The weight distribution from left-to-right is impressive and even with the longer, 50-150mm f/2.8 attached, the NX1 doesn't feel overly heavy in the front, as I was expecting to be the case.

What really caught me off guard with the NX1 was the ergonomics of the camera. As someone with larger hands, who is familiar with much larger cameras, I was expecting the NX1 to feel awkward in my hands and difficult to grip. But to my surprise, Samsung really pulled through. The grip seems almost sculpted for your fingers in the front and on the back, and Samsung cleverly designed the thumb-rest with a bulge to give you more stability when holding the camera.

Unfortunately I didn't get to try out the NX1 with its available battery grip, which likely would've further improved the gripping situation for my larger hands.

50-150mm f/2.8 S OIS lens: 89mm, f/2.8, 1/800s, ISO 6400, manual exposure
[Default ACR conversionEdited version]

Autofocus & Speed

With the design of the camera covered, now comes the part I was most anxious to try out -- the actual performance, especially when put under pressure in a real-life sports environment.

Autofocus Performance

As previously mentioned, I took the NX1, the 16-50mm f/2-2.8 OIS and the 50-150mm f/2.8 OIS to both a minor league hockey game and indoor collegiate men's volleyball match. The logic behind shooting these two sports in their respective venues is that they offered up a diverse range of lighting and performance variations, letting me truly put the camera to the test.

From the get-go, I knew hockey would be the easier shoot. Not only is the lighting far better at the venue the hockey game was played at, but you also have the ice acting as a fill light, better lighting the players' faces and giving the autofocus a bit more to latch onto.

Even with the players hustling up and down the ice, the NX1 had little struggle keeping up with their quick cuts and speedy sprints.
50-150mm f/2.8 S OIS lens: 150mm, f/3.2, 1/800s, ISO 3200, manual exposure
[Default ACR conversionEdited version]

As suspected, the autofocus performed quite well throughout the hockey game. (I shot with firmware version 1.20, and I used multi-point AF with Continuous High burst rate for the most part, though I popped down to Continuous Low burst rate briefly.) While shooting side-to-side from the stands and above the plexiglas, the autofocus nailed every shot I could throw its way. The true challenge though came when shooting at ice-level, from behind the glass (this particular venue doesn't have media holes for photographers). With a quarter-inch piece of plexiglas separating you from the ice and players flying in all directions, both towards and away from you, I wasn't sure how the autofocus would hold up.

Turns out, it held up quite well. Even with players criss-crossing each other, the autofocus stayed on target through the plexiglas and kept the players in focus. Where it seemed to struggle was when players came flying down the ice towards me. As is the case with a handful of other cameras I've shot with, the autofocus seemed to struggle with the subject quickly moving towards it. If I were to fire off a string of 15 shots, the first two or three would be in focus, while the middle ones slowly started fading out.

It's worth noting that the plexiglas plays a major role in this, as even my 5D Mark III and 70-200mm f/2.8 IS struggles with this at times. That being said, it was definitely noticeable that the NX1 struggled a great deal more than its larger, DSLR counterpart.

This was shot through the plexiglas with the player coming towards me. Surprisingly, the NX1 didn't struggle much with this shot, which could partly be due to the fact I was in the slower normal continuous mode.
50-150mm f/2.8 S OIS lens: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/800s, ISO 3200, manual exposure
[Default ACR conversionEdited version]

Specifically, the NX1 seemed to struggle when it was at its full 15fps framerate. When turned down to its slower settings (accessible via the touchscreen menu), the NX1 felt as though it had more time to 'think' between each shot and adjust for the subject flying towards it at 15-20mph. This might not come as a surprise, as the 15fps burst gives little time for the camera to adjust, but it's definitely something that was noticeable as I adjusted the camera's fps setting.

Onto volleyball. Having previously shot in the venue where the volleyball match was being played, I knew this would truly test the NX1's low-light focusing capabilities. And my goodness, was I right!

For the sake of full disclosure, it's difficult to shoot anything in this environment. My 5D Mark III consistently struggles, even with the lights turned all the way up, so I knew the NX1 would probably break under the pressure (even though the NX1's AF is rated down to -4 EV versus the 5D Mark III's -2 EV rating). I just wanted to see how often it succumbed to the low-light and how fast or slow it was at recovering.

This was the first serve of the game and, much to my surprise, the NX1 came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, with roughly 6 of the 10 shots I fired off being in focus. It's worth noting though, that EVF lag made it difficult to track the subject throughout the burst, while he was in the air.
50-150mm f/2.8 S OIS lens: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/500s, ISO 6400, manual exposure
[Default ACR conversionEdited version]

Volleyball is without a doubt one of the most difficult sports to shoot. Not only do you never truly have a good angle on the subject, but trying to guess where the ball will end up next is near impossible, even with a serve. This in mind, I was quite impressed with how well the NX1 kept up despite the unforgiving lighting and difficult subject matter.

At full-size, you'll notice in this image the slight hesitation the NX1 shows when making minor autofocus adjustments – the player's foot and torso are in focus, while his heads and hands are slightly blurred.
50-150mm f/2.8 S OIS lens: 85mm, f/2.8, 1/640s, ISO 6400, manual exposure
[Default ACR conversion Edited version]

When quickly switching from one player to the next, I noticed a slight bit of lag when trying to confirm autofocus, but once it hit, it nailed it. That is, until the subject moved again. Even if only slightly, if the subject moved a foot closer or further away from me, the NX1 struggled to compensate in a time-appropriate manner. There were a handful of cases where small adjustments to return a serve were lost due to autofocus still focusing on a torso while a player's upper body was coming towards the camera.

To boil this phenomenon down, the autofocus seemed to perform well when moving the camera and focusing on new objects. However, when you're focused on one object and it starts moving around within the frame, the autofocus really struggles to keep up with it under low-light conditions. Yet again, stay tuned for more thorough overall AF testing still to come.

EVF Speed

Now to the speed of the NX1's electronic viewfinder.

For me as a sports shooter, one of the biggest concerns with switching to mirrorless was having to forgo the optical viewfinder. As impressive as electronic viewfinders have become, there's no denying that they can't keep up with an optical viewfinder in terms of consistently letting you see the action through the lens.

Who doesn't love a little fisticuffs during a hockey game? This is one of the times when something more than a 50-150mm lens would've really come in handy. Unfortunately, Samsung doesn't offer anything longer in their current S-series "pro" lens line-up.
50-150mm f/2.8 S OIS lens: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/800s, ISO 3200, manual exposure
[Default ACR conversion Edited version]

Much to my surprise, the NX1 performed extremely well. Not only was the electronic viewfinder extremely clear, but it also managed to keep up with the live action very well, even in the low-light of the volleyball match. Where I noticed its weakness was after taking a burst of images.

50-150mm f/2.8 S OIS lens: 100mm, f/2.8, 1/500s, ISO 6400, manual exposure
[Default ACR conversionEdited version]

When firing off a series of 15 shots, the electronic viewfinder lags briefly before returning to a live view of the scene. Even with instant image preview (aka Quick View in Samsung lingo) disabled, there's a noticeable pause between when the image of the last frame of the burst is seen in the EVF and when the scene returns to being a live image. It's only a fraction of a second, though; maybe only a tenth of a second if I were to put an unofficial timeframe on it. But in sports photography, where a hundredth of a second can make a difference, that short delay can cause you to completely lose track of the action -- by the time you're done firing off your burst, your subject matter might be completely out of frame, as was the case for me a few times in both hockey and volleyball.

If anything about the camera turned me off on using this as my full-time sports camera, this is it. I tried varying the burst rate between the full 15fps down to 8fps in Continuous High mode, and while there's some improvement in this EVF "lag" at a slower burst rate, it wasn't a significant improvement, I found. I also didn't notice a change in this behavior between varying light quality, both low-light and bright. It's but one major flaw, but in the demanding world of sports photography, it's a big one that can make or break whether you get the shot you need.

ISO Performance

Yet another aspect of the Samsung NX1 that I was anxious to test to the limits was high-ISO shooting. Considering Samsung brags about its maximum 25,600 ISO capabilities (up to 51,200 extended), I was curious to see if it lived up to the hype.

For the hockey game, I was shooting between ISO 1600 and 6400. For volleyball, I kept it at roughly 6400 the entire time.

The Zamboni travels far slower than players do traveling down ice, so there was no trouble with keeping focused here.
50-150mm f/2.8 S OIS lens: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/800s, ISO 3200, manual exposure
[Default ACR conversionEdited version]

As is the case more often than not, when shooting in bright conditions, high ISO noise is hardly noticeable unless you're getting down to 100% magnification on the images. Even upon zooming in a great deal, Adobe Camera Raw renders high ISO images to have far more luminosity noise than color using default noise reduction settings, leaving an aesthetic akin to film grain.

As for shooting high ISO in dark environments, this is when the noise becomes far more prominent. In the dimly-lit venue of the volleyball game, noise became quite pronounced. Furthermore, when shooting in the full 15fps burst mode, the noise reduction options become unavailable, which is something we're currently looking into (though noise reduction settings should only apply to JPEGs).

50-150mm f/2.8 S OIS lens: 100mm, f/2.8, 1/500s, ISO 6400, manual exposure
[Default ACR conversionEdited version]

Part I Summary

Overall, the Samsung NX1 is an impressive little camera. It won't be replacing my Canon 5D Mark III anytime soon, but considering it's Samsung's first entry into the professional market, it's one heck of a camera. I actually find myself wanting to use it over my 5D Mark III, but I just can't justify it, especially when I know the optical viewfinder is far more consistent in making sure I can see the important action as it happens.

On the other hand, if you're mainly shooting action that's passing in front of you in a fairly predictable manner (horse or car racing, or perhaps a baseball player running the bases), the NX1's responsive handling and high frame rates could constitute a big win. Likewise, in the specific case of shooting baseball, and catching the ball coming off the bat, there's literally nothing like Samsung's Auto-Shot feature anywhere in the market.

While it didn't quite (yet) bring me to give up my 5D Mark III, it's exciting to see Samsung stir up the market though. With a few more options in terms of glass, and continuous improvement on the autofocus and EVF front, Samsung could really and truly win over photographers who have long been embedded in the DSLR market. With its small form factor, thoughtful design and considerably impressive specs, the NX1 is a very impressive step in the right direction.

Stay Tuned

There's more to come in our Samsung NX1 Review. In the next installment of our Field Test, will tackle a more in-depth look at AF performance, as well as investigate the NX1's other major features including 4K video recording and wireless connectivity.

[Samsung NX1 OverviewGalleryLab Samples]

 



Enter this month to win:

1 $300 Adorama Gift Certificate

2 $200 Adorama Gift Certificate

3 $100 Adorama Gift Certificate