Samsung NX1 Field Test Part II
Samsung NX1 Field Test Part II
A solid first step for Samsung's professional camera system
by Jeremy Gray | Posted 04/14/2015
50-150mm Lens: 150mm, f/11, 0.5s, ISO 100
The Samsung NX1 mirrorless camera features speed and performance that aims to compete with more expensive, larger DSLR camera bodies. It offers many of the best aspects of a DSLR camera while also bringing some unique features that make it an attractive alternative to the traditional DSLR camera, so I've been eager to get my hands on one for a deeper dive.
Camera Body and Handling
The Samsung NX1, with its all-magnesium, weather-sealed body, is small and light compared to most prosumer DSLRs, weighing in at around 550g with the battery, but it is easy to grip and fits very nicely in my hands. Samsung has clearly put considerable thought into maintaining DSLR handling, but in a smaller mirrorless camera body. The button layout of the camera is familiar to anyone that has shot with a DSLR; the NX1 provides simplicity in its controls without sacrificing functionality, as all of the most important shooting controls are easily accessible.
The 3.0-inch tilting AMOLED touchscreen display on the NX1 is fantastic. All of my touches registered accurately, and the menu system is mostly touch-friendly, should you want to navigate that way. Some menu options are too small to easily touch, and I occasionally had to tap multiple times to get the desired result. Of course, the menu system can be operated traditionally with its navigation button to the right of the display (which is essentially a wheel with directional buttons built in) and center 'OK' button. The physical navigation controls work well, although the OK button is quite small and can be tricky to press without accidentally pressing a direction on the navigation button. The display has a fine tilting range, although a full 180-degree tilt would certainly be a welcome improvement. The display itself is bright, vibrant and sharp. One issue with the display being a touchscreen is that fingerprints build up on the display that can make it difficult to see in direct sunlight, so regularly cleaning the display becomes a necessity.
16-50mm Lens: 16mm, f/2.0, 10s, ISO 1600
The NX1 features built-in Wi-Fi (802.11ac) and Bluetooth, as well as a USB 3.0 interface. Using the free downloadable Samsung Camera Manager smartphone app, the camera's built-in Wi-Fi is put to good use. The process of connecting a smartphone and the camera is quite simple. On iOS devices it involves pressing the 'Mobile' button on the back of the camera, then connecting to the camera's Wi-Fi network through the iOS internet settings, and then opening the application. The entire process can also be password-protected. The camera can also connect to Android phones using NFC if that handset includes such a feature, which simplifies the connection process.
The application itself offers a high level of control, from all of the basic camera features and shooting options to more in-depth camera settings. Image files can also be sent from the camera to your device. However, RAW files cannot be sent over a mobile connection. It is also easy to connect the camera over Wi-Fi to a DLNA-enabled television. While there is a slight delay between selecting an image on the camera to it popping up on the television, it is a neat and easy way to share and view images. You can even send image files via email by tapping the envelope icon on the display when playing back images.
The NX1 features a unique APS-C image sensor. The sensor is backside-illuminated (BSI), which means that circuitry on the sensor is moved behind the light gathering part. By moving components behind the light gathering area, the sensor is capable of capturing more light, which should lead to improved low-light performance. As far as I am aware, the NX1 features the largest BSI sensor on the market.
The NX1 produces high quality files with a pleasing overall look. Images are sharp and detailed with smooth tones and accurate color reproduction, particularly at low ISOs. RAW files from the NX1 contain a wealth of information and many images can be salvaged even if images are underexposed by multiple stops. The NX1 produces good quality JPEG files as well, although default sharpening is a bit heavy for my taste, as is the default noise reduction. With the two lenses I used with the NX1, Samsung's S-series 16-50mm and 50-150mm lenses, the NX1 captures impressively detailed images.
Unfortunately, in automatic mode, the NX1 only records JPEG files. That said, the fully automatic mode performs well and the camera's good autofocus performance and metering ensure that it's easy to capture good images in a variety of situations with a a simple "point and shoot." The NX1 assesses the scene you are shooting from a wide variety of options and intelligently applies setting adjustments that are best for that sort of scene.
16-50mm Lens: 16mm, f/8, 10s, ISO 100
The NX1 is enjoyable to shoot with. Having a battery rated at 500 shots, you can shoot with the NX1 for an extended time period without worry. It features an excellent OLED EVF that has only a 5ms delay, 2.36 million dots, and in many regards, the EVF performs as well as an optical viewfinder -- and in some regards it even surpasses it. The depth and customizability of information you can see through the NX1's EVF is excellent, such as a live histogram on the bottom left corner of the viewfinder. Further, being able to see live previews of settings adjustments through the viewfinder is excellent. In low light, the viewfinder still works well, although it comes up short of an optical viewfinder in clarity and usability when light gets very low.
The tilting touch screen's utility becomes evident out in the field, particularly when shooting with a tripod. Using the touch screen to select a focus point is simple and intuitive. By holding down on the focus point, it is possible to separate the AF and AE points on the touch screen. While I typically prefer to keep the AF and AE points locked together, having the ability to separate them using a touchscreen opens up new shooting possibilities. To do so, simply tap to place the AF point, and then continue to drag your finger to separate the two points. To re-join them, just drag one point on top of the other.
A gif animation of the touchscreen split AF/AE point system.
When using the NX1's more traditional controls, the shooting experience remains excellent. The top display provides the same necessary information I expect from larger DSLR cameras. The mode dial to the left of the top display is sturdy and clicks into place nicely. There is also a center lock button so that the mode dial will not be accidentally adjusted, although I preferred to keep it unlocked so I could switch modes easier as I had no issue with accidentally switching modes. To the left of the viewfinder is the drive dial, which provides the same clicking feedback of the mode dial but doesn't have a locking mechanism. On the top of the drive dial are four buttons that adjust ISO, AF mode, Metering mode, and white balance. I enjoyed having quick access to these adjustments while shooting, however the buttons themselves are small and short.
Metering and White Balance
Using a 221-block segment system, the NX1 meters accurately. The NX1 can bracket +/- 5 EV for still photography and +/- 3 EV for video. There are standard multi, center-weighted, and spot metering modes that can be quickly adjusted using the metering button on the top left of the camera body and also can be accessed through the function (Fn) menu and touchscreen. When exposure compensation is necessary or desired, there is a dedicated exposure compensation button on the top right of the camera body. I found the NX1 to meter well in every situation I tested it in. Similarly, the NX1's auto white balance works well. For situations where a different white balance is desired, white balance adjustments are easy to make using the dedicated white balance button on the top left of the camera. There are all of your typical presets such as sunny, cloudy, and different indoor lighting presets. Additionally there is a customizable kelvin temperature setting and a custom white balance preset where you can adjust different color tints.
50-150mm Lens: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 1000
Smart Mode, Smart Filters, and other Shooting Options
There are a variety of Smart Modes available with the NX1 by setting the camera to Smart Mode and then selecting the shooting option you want to work with. The most interesting ones to me were Rich Tone (HDR) and Panorama. Rich Tone increases the tonal range of a JPEG file and increases saturation. Panorama is a neat idea and is easy to use, however, the image quality of the NX1's panorama mode is unimpressive. The detail and resolution of the in-camera-created panorama shots are much lower than a standard photo. Also, autofocus is locked at the beginning of the panorama process. You must keep the shutter button fully depressed for the duration of the panorama and focus does not adjust during the shot, so there's a risk of parts of the shot being out of focus depending on the scenario.
16-50mm Lens: 16mm, f/4.0, 1/125s, ISO 320 (Panorama Mode)
16-50mm Lens: 16mm, f/2.5, 1/100s, ISO 3200 (Panorama Mode)
There are also Smart Filters that allow you to add a special effect to your photos. The Smart Filter options are vignette, miniature (horizontal), miniature (vertical), watercolor, red, green, blue, and yellow where the last four options desaturate all colors except the chosen one. To help expand the dynamic range of images and video, there is a Smart Range+ option. This option is available for RAW files as well. You can set Smart Range+ for video capture independently from the stills capture setting. The NX1 also has a built-in HDR recording option, but this works only with JPEG files. There are three HDR options, low, medium, and high. The HDR option works well and is a rather subdued effect.
Shooting with the 16-50mm and 50-150mm lenses
The Samsung 16-50mm f/2.0-2.8 OIS lens combines a useful focal range with an impressive maximum aperture. This performance comes at the cost of size, as the lens is fairly large relative to the NX1. The lens takes 72mm filters and weighs over 600 grams. For comparison, the NX1 weighs in at 550 grams. With that said, the lens balances nicely with the camera body. The lens looks excellent, with a very nice black finish and blue trim. The zoom and focus rings are smooth, although the ridges don't provide as much grip as I would like.
Performance with the 16-50mm lens is excellent. Optically, the lens is sharp wide open and throughout the focal range. There is moderate vignetting when shooting wide open at 16mm, but this is easy to fix using either the in-camera vignette correction or in post-processing. I found that stopping down the lens and avoiding the two focal length extremes solves this issue and provides very impressive optical performance. Autofocus is quick and quiet, and the optical image stabilization is quiet as well, and effective.
50-150mm Lens: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/500s, ISO 125
Samsung's new 50-150mm f/2.8 S ED OIS lens fills the role of a 70-200mm f/2.8 in Samsung's NX system and provides a 77-231mm equivalent focal length. Weighing in at just over 916 grams, the 50-150mm lens is surprisingly light for its size (15.39 centimeters in length with a 72mm filter thread). With the same styling and zoom/focus rings as the 16-50mm lens, the 50-150mm looks and feels great. The 50-150mm performs very well. It produces sharp images even when wide open throughout the focal range and has quick and accurate autofocus. At 150mm, the lens does seem to lose a bit of sharpness, but the sharpness loss is minimal and can be dealt with by stopping down the lens.
Neither lens has a physical focus scale, but there is a digital focus scale on the camera that worked very well when I was doing night photography, which is primarily when I need to use a focus scale. Additionally, the 50-150mm has a custom focus setting on the lens, which lets you customize the focus range that the lens will use for autofocus. For example, if you'll be shooting subjects that are more than 15 meters away, you can set the lens to not attempt to autofocus on any subject closer than 15 meters. This will help improve speed and accuracy when attaining focus.
50-150mm Lens: 150mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s, ISO 100
Both the 16-50mm and 50-150mm lens feature i-Function. By pressing the i-Function button on the lens barrels, you access a sub-menu of key options such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO speed, exposure compensation, and white balance, which appears on the right side of the screen or EVF. By rotating the focus ring, you can adjust the selected setting in this i-Function sub-menu. To move to the next setting, you press the i-Function button again. The menu disappears when you half-press the shutter. The i-Function button is fantastic, and I hope that more camera manufacturers start to look at this feature.
The NX1 has a hybrid AF system with 205-point phase-detect autofocus, which covers an impressive 90% of the frame. Being able to select an AF point across nearly the entire frame or track a subject across more of the frame is very useful. Samsung claims that the NX1's NX AF System III has the fastest autofocus lock in the world at 55ms. While the autofocus can be very fast, it doesn't seem particularly fast in challenging situations, even with the latest firmware update I had (v1.20). For example, when I was trying to photograph birds as they moved around in branches, the camera sometimes failed to focus on the subject even when it was within the selected AF area and the amount of light was more than adequate. When using the NX1 in similar situations to the Canon 7D Mark II I tested earlier this year, it is my observation that the NX1's autofocus system isn't as accurate, particularly in lower light. With that said, the NX1's autofocus performance is very good overall in a wide array of other situations.
There are multiple ways to select different AF modes. The primary method to change the AF mode is to press the button on the top left of the camera. Additionally, AF mode can be changed through the "Fn" menu and also through the camera's main menu system. The camera has single shot autofocus (SAF), continuous autofocus (CAF), active AF (AAF), and manual focus. Active AF changes between single and continuous autofocus based on whether or not the subject is moving when the shutter is pressed halfway. There are multiple AF area modes to choose from as well. There is multi-area AF, select area AF, face detection AF, and self-portrait AF, which seems out of place for a camera like this (especially when the screen doesn't rotate all the way to a "selfie" orientation). Additionally, there is touch AF where you use the touchscreen to move the AF point around.
50-150mm Lens: 150mm, f/7.1, 1/320s, ISO 160
Multi-area AF is okay for general photography, but for wildlife photography I found it to be inconsistent and slow to focus on the desired subject, particularly when the subject filled a moderately small portion of the frame. Select area AF, on the other hand, works well as long as you can keep the subject within the AF point. The size of the AF point can be easily customized as well. To move the AF point, you have to press the OK button and then move the directional pad because by default the directional pad has various functions mapped to it. The OK button is sometimes difficult to use for this purpose because of its small size. With default settings, the selectable AF point resets to center whenever the camera is shut off. Changing this setting in the menu is highly recommended.
In bright light, the NX1's autofocus performs very well. Save for difficult situations or tracking fast-moving subjects, the NX1 captures very sharp images. When light got lower, however, the NX1 struggled to consistently capture sharp images. The speed and accuracy of the autofocus system noticeably decreases in lower light situations. To help combat difficulty autofocusing in very low light, the NX1 has an interesting AF assist lamp. The AF illuminator is a green striped light pattern that has an effective range up to 15m. The lamp has a concentrated beam of light, so your subject will have to be in the center of the frame while composing the image in low light for the illuminator to work well. While I was not impressed with the NX1's ability to autofocus in low light, when the NX1 focuses well, it focuses extremely well and delivers high-quality image files.
50-150mm Lens: 150mm, f/4.0, 1/500s, ISO 100
The NX1 is designed to capture images at a remarkably fast 15fps. This impressive ability is possible because of Samsung's DRIMe V image processor, Samsung's latest and fastest processor. This high speed shooting is only useful if the other aspects of the camera can maintain high performance throughout the burst. Fortunately, the continuous autofocus performance is solid, though not perfect, as I mentioned earlier. Where the NX1 falters slightly is in its buffer and its ability to quickly process image files, particularly when shooting RAW file bursts. The buffer depends on the speed of the card being used and the quality of files being recorded. In my experience shooting with RAW+JPEG, the buffer is expended rather quickly when shooting at 15fps. When the camera is processing image files, adjusting settings and navigating menus on the camera becomes marginally slower. There were also some instances when the camera would freeze while processing image files, particularly when I was shooting long exposure images. This happened only a few times and was easily fixed by turning the camera off.
The NX1's continuous autofocus performance falls short of being considered excellent. Samsung continues to update the camera's firmware to improve many features, including the autofocus performance, so it is possible that they may continue to improve autofocus performance. The NX1's multi-area AF struggled to find the subject I was trying to shoot at times and then struggled to maintain focus. The only way I could get consistently accurate autofocus performance during burst shooting was to use selectable AF and keep the autofocus point over the subject. Doing so while shooting at 15fps can become quite difficult, however, because the viewfinder stops providing a live view and starts displaying the images you're capturing. This might not always be an issue, but in situations where every split second matters, it can be problematic.
Continuous Shooting and High ISOs
The NX1 has a few interesting quirks involving continuous shooting and high ISOs. Firstly, when shooting in continuous high mode, the camera applies a more simplistic noise reduction process to JPEG files (with the camera even disabling the Noise Reduction adjustment option in the menus). Compared to high ISO images captured in continuous normal or in single shot mode, the images captured in continuous high mode have more visible noise. Secondly, when shooting in continuous normal mode, when the camera is shooting at higher than ISO 3200, the camera shoots at a slower FPS. This can be avoided by turning off noise reduction. Thirdly, the ISO sensitivity range that the camera allows you to use depends on the shooting drive mode. When shooting in continuous high mode, ISO cannot go above 6400. When shooting in continuous normal mode, ISO cannot go above 25,600.
16-50mm Lens: 16mm, f/2.0, 30s, ISO 3200
Shooting in Low Light
Shooting in low light with the NX1 is generally fine. The NX1 can acquire autofocus of a still subject in low light quite well; it just takes the camera a few seconds. The NX1's AF illuminator helps when the subject is centered in the frame. The AF illuminator projects a green, striped beam of light up to 15m. The AF illuminator worked well for me after sunset, although it did sometimes take a few attempts for the camera to lock autofocus. The camera body itself handles well in low light. Pressing the illumination button just below the top display will light up the top display with an orange backlight.
High ISO Noise Reduction -- LOW
(16-50mm Lens: 16mm, f/2.0, 30s, ISO 6400)
100% Crop: High ISO Noise Reduction LOW
100% Crop: High ISO Noise Reduction NORMAL
100% Crop: High ISO Noise Reduction HIGH
100% Crop: High ISO Noise Reduction OFF
With an ISO range of ISO 100-25,600 (expandable up to 51,200), the NX1 is poised to deal well with low light. However, I found RAW images should only be captured up to ISO 6400 and JPEGs beyond ISO 6400 are not really usable. The in-camera noise reduction feels excessive at the default setting of "Normal." A lot of detail is removed by the NX1's noise reduction at Normal and High. With low noise reduction, a good balance is struck between retaining detail and eliminating some of the noise.
The video quality and features of the NX1 are impressive. With the ability to shoot up to Cinema 4K resolution at 24fps and Ultra HD resolution at 30fps, the NX1 surpasses many other cameras on the market. Beyond the high-resolution offerings, the NX1 can capture the standard assortment of resolutions, including 1080p at 60fps. Numerous bitrate options are also available, including Pro bit-rate recording, which is about double that of the HQ bit-rate option. The NX1 records video in the new H.265 codec, which leads to smaller file sizes, but there are not many video players that handle this codec yet. Samsung offers a free video converter, although there are other free and paid options available while standard video players are updated over time. Resolution is just a small part of the story, however, because the NX1 also includes user-friendly controls and features that make it a truly impressive video camera. The NX1 can capture uncompressed 4K video via the HDMI output, there are microphone and headphone ports, and the camera has focus peaking and zebra patterns.
There are numerous useful performance options available through the camera's menu system, such as AF responsiveness and AF shift speed adjustments that are maintained independently of still photography settings. Audio options include fader settings, wind cut options, and mic levels.
A unique aspect of the NX1 is that it is always ready to record video. A simple press on the right directional pad brings the camera into movie standby mode. The camera can start recording video immediately whenever you press the 'record' button on the top of the camera. The button is well-located and has a small circular indent that makes it easy to locate when looking through the viewfinder.
Video quality and performance is excellent. The sensor provides good detail through much of the ISO range. Smart Range+ options are also available when recording video to increase the dynamic range, although at the cost of increasing visual noise. Autofocus works quite well when recording video. With the two lenses I tested, autofocus was smooth and quiet.
- What I liked:
- DSLR-like controls on a small and light camera body
- The tilting touchscreen works well and looks great
- The wireless capabilities are impressive and easy to use
- OLED EVF is fantastic
- 15fps shooting
- i-Function buttons add unique controls to the lenses
- Video quality and features are excellent
- What I disliked:
- While autofocus operates quickly in many conditions, it struggles with accuracy in more difficult scenes and lighting conditions
- Some buttons are too small
- Noise reduction does not perform well, particularly during high speed continuous shooting
- Camera processes RAW files slowly
The Samsung NX1 has many interesting and useful features and delivers very good overall performance. While being a mirrorless camera, the NX1 generally feels like a DSLR with very few exceptions. While the autofocus performance can struggle at times, the NX1 remains a camera that I would feel confident in recommending to photographers who wants a small, capable camera with excellent controls and numerous features. Those who rely on sophisticated autofocus or optical viewfinders may want to look elsewhere. The NX1 is a solid first step for Samsung as they continue to develop their NX system and work on developing professional camera bodies and lenses.