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Samsung NX-1 First Impressions

By Michael Reichmann

It isn't often that a brand-new high-spec interchangeable lens camera comes to market. This is one of those times. Samsung, known worldwide for everything from TV sets, to home appliances, to cargo ships, to nuclear power plants, is the Korean counterpart to Japan's Sony and Panasonic, with annual revenues of more than $175 Billion USD, making it the world's 13th largest company. Sony and Panasonic are #105 and #106 respectively, giving you some idea of the size of Samsung.

But we're not here to talk balance sheets but rather cameras. With the NX1 Samsung has jumped with both feet into the highly competitive interchangeable lens camera market. Yes, I know this isn't Samsung's first interchangeable lens camera (ILC), but it definitely is the first one that amateurs and pros can take seriously.

Whiteout. Creemore, Ontario. November, 2014
Samsung NX1 with NX 50-150 f/2.8 S

My initial thought when seeing the NX1 at Photokina in September, 2014 was that this is a poor time to be entering the market. Camera sales are in a slump, and among consumers, smartphones and tablets have taken over as the happy-snappers of choice for many people. But then, looking at the competitive marketplace it makes total sense. The big two, Canon and Nikon, have been asleep at the wheel when it comes to the so-called mirrorless revolution. Canon's M series was a token effort, and Nikon's 1 series is half-baked at best. Why? Because neither company wants to eat their golden goose – namely profitable DSLR sales. Instead, they're making a classic business school case-study mistake, and allowing erstwhile competitors like Sony, Panasonic, Fujifilm and Olympus to land a beachhead and gain market share in the mirrorless segment, which is where the industry is inevitably heading whether Nikon and Canon want it to or not. Now, Samsung has also landed on the beach.

Into this rich competitive environment sails Samsung – continuing our nautical metaphor. It's a smart move. Though not a brand name of any consequence in cameras, it is a global brand, and has the resources needed to win in a market where it decides to compete seriously, and with the NX1 that commitment is duly noted.

Hilltop House. Clearview, Ontario. November, 2014
Samsung NX1 with 50-150mm OIS f/2.8 S

NX1 Basics

You can read the manufacturer's full specs on Samsung UK's web site. The salient points are that this camera has a 28 MP APS-C sized sensor, a weather sealed magnesium body, on-sensor phase detection autofocus for ultra fast AF, OLED rear LCD and EVF, 15 FPS shooting speed with a 70 frame buffer, 4K video in-camera using the newest ultra-efficient H265 codec, etc, etc. (Incidently, the camera I tested was full production quality, and running Firmware V1.01).

The specs are amazing. If this camera had come from Canon or Nikon (or any of the established players) we'd all be changing our underwear, we'd be so excited. So, read-up on the specs wherever you find them online, but let's dive in and see what all these amazing features mean in the real world, and how well they perform.

In Hand

In terms of fit, finish and feel the NX1 is in the Goldilocks zone...not too big, not too small, not top-of-the-line, and definitely not below the mid-line. This isn't a bad place to be, especially at the camera's launch price point of $1,499 which also puts it mid-tier.

I'm usually a strong critic of camera's handling deficiencies. But in the case of the NX1 there is little to quibble about. Be aware though that this is not a CSC-sized camera like those from Olympus, Fuji and Panasonic. It has more of the heft of an APS-C-sized mid-tier DSLR, which it is, except that it uses an EVF instead of a reflex optical viewfinder.

This is a mixed blessing, but I feel more of a virtue than a deficit. Full frame DSLRs still have viewing and visualizing advantages over anything with an EVF. But, EVF's have gotten steadily better these past few years and the one in the NX1 is as good as it currently gets. In my view (no pun intended), I would rather a state-of-the-art EVF than the small optical finders that are found on many consumer grade DSLRs. And, let's not forget that we are witnessing the end-days of the reflex finder. Sure, some pro-level cameras will still have them in ten years, but few, and they'll be expensive. A prism and moving mirror are much more expensive to make than an EVF, and the economics of the marketplace will dictate the replacement of big chunks of glass and moving parts with silicon, sooner rather than later. So just think – if you buy an NX1 you'll be in the vanguard of the new economics. (Cynicism alert).

I should also mention that the NX1 and the newer S class lenses are weather and dust sealed. I tested this one day shooting in near white-out snow conditions, and neither the camera nor lenses were phased by being snow coated and operating in -5C conditions. I was, but they weren't.

As seen in the illustration above, there is an articulated rear LCD which also features touch capability. There are separate programmable AF and AE buttons – something I always appreciate – and there is also a top panel LCD. Though a little on the small side, it is a pleasure to have instead of having to rely on the rear screen for system status the way one does with most CSCs.

The mode dial has a center button which can either allow the dial to turn, or when depressed to be locked. On the left top is a shooting speed dial, but this does not lock. A rear Function button calls up a muti-segment shortcut screen and at the top of the left-top wheel are buttons for ISO, White Balance, Focus Area and AF mode.

There is a front and rear control wheel which acts as one would expect, depending on the shooting mode chosen. The EVF has a diopter adjustment, there is a pop-up flash and also a switch for EVF, LCD or eye detect switching.

Overall the camera's controls are comprehensive and for the most part mainstream in their design and implementation. There is extensive control customizability.

Battery

The battery in the NX1 is a proprietary Samsung PB1900, loading into the grip base in the usual matter. Be aware that at the time of introduction there are no inexpensive third party batteries available. Indeed your only choice is this specific battery, and so let's hope that Samsung doesn't fall into the common pitfall of not having sufficient spare batteries available.

USB Charging

The NX1 comes with a USB charger. Interestingly, it uses a USB 3 cable, and on the plus side this connects the camera to a computer for file transfer at high speed. But for charging, I have less charitable things to say.

Selling a camera to serious photographers and potentially to Pros that doesn't have a stand-alone charger is a huge mistake. It means that your camera is made unavailable for shooting when you need to charge a battery. Samsung aren't the only camera maker to make this mistake, but none of the other camera makers does this with their top-of-the-line body offering.

I'll put this simply... if a camera needs to be used for charging its batteries then it can't be used at the same time for taking pictures. There is an accessory stand-alone charger available, but in my opinion Samsung really should bundle it with the camera if they want to appeal to the type of photographer who is likely to consider a camera in the NX1's class.

They do bundle the charger with the Pro Kit though.

Winter Pasture. Clearview, Ontario. November, 2014
Samsung NX1 with 50-150mm OIS f/2.8 S at ISO 200

User Manual

I usually don't comment on user manuals, because they are mostly similar. But Samsung deserves kudos for producing one of the clearest and most concise manuals that I've seen in a while. Even the graphic design is first rate.

When the mainstream camera makers dissect the NX1 they should also look at what Samsung has done in terms of documentation. They could learn something.

The Kitchen Sink

Please note that this is simply a first-impressions report, and not a review. This camera is very rich in technology, with literally dozens of features such as a built-in intervalometer, 5 frame auto-bracketing, level sensor, panoramic mode and many imaging modes that are popular with some amateurs.

Did I mention motion analysis shutter release? Ya, really.

I neither have the time not the interest to test them all, but if a competitive feature exists somewhere in the industry you can almost assume that the NX1 likely has it. Samsung isn't leaving too many holes open for criticism, certainly not when it comes to features and functions.


A Word on My Testing Period

Normally I work with manufacturers to schedule my testing of a new camera to coincide with a trip or a shoot in some exotic locale. Regrettably this was not the case this time. Instead, the ten days that I had with the NX1 coincided with some awful mid-November early winter weather; snow, high winds, more snow, drifting snow, white-outs and when it wasn't snowing, overcast skies.

Furthermore I was at my place in the country, closing up and getting ready to move into a new place in Toronto, and the only thing to photograph was – you guessed it – snow. So, this is by way of noting why there isn't much in the way of interesting or illustrative images in this article, unless you're a fan of snow.

Red Barn. Clearview, Ontario. November, 2014
Samsung NX1 with 50-150mm S lens at ISO 200

Lenses

Any camera is only as good as the lenses that one uses. It used to be said of film cameras that they were just a box to hold film and attach a lens at the other end. Well, not quite, especially in the case of digital imaging where the sensor is the lens' partner. But you get the point.

Samsung has a reasonable lens line up for a newcomer. Both the 16-50mm f/2-f/2.8 OIS and 50-150mmm f/2.8 OIS lenses are part of their "Premium S Series", and were provided for testing.  I found them both to be very well finished and with extremely smooth zoom rings. Both are weather sealed, with rubber O-rings around the lens mount.

Manual focusing is fly-by-wire, but very smooth. When MF is engaged the image jumps briefly to 100% magnification with peaking. Very nice.

Samsung uses a proprietary lens mount. At this time (late 2014) only they make lenses in this mount. No third party lenses, such as from Zeiss or Sigma exist for the NX1. There are though quite a few other lenses in the line-up including an excellent 85mm f/1.4 lens which appears able to compete with anything comparable already on the market.

From the company's point of view not having third party lens support is a mixed blessing. They won't lose lens sales to anyone else. But the downside is that the NX lens line is not complete, and potential buyers have no other choices. For example, there is currently nothing longer than 200mm. A 300mm f/2.8 was shown at Photokina, but I'm told that it won't be ready till some time mid-2015. 

You might recall that Samsung used to promote the fact that the lenses on their compacts were from Schneider, just as Sony still has a relationship with Zeiss, and Panasonic with Leica. But the lenses in the NX line are all Samsung's own designs and manufacture. Indeed, almost everything in the NX1 camera and its lenses is made by Samsung, from the sensor itself to the optics.

It's Snowing Again. Clearview, Ontario. November, 2014
Samsung NX1 with 50-150mm S lens at ISO 200

Raw Conversion

The NX1 comes with a full copy of Lightroom, Version 5.6 on initial shipments, and Version 5.7 on later ones. V5.6 does not support the NX1 while V5.7, released in mid-November, 2014 just as the camera started shipping, does.

Be aware though that V5.7 has a bug with NX1 files. You need to turn on Remove Chromatic Aberration. JPGs are fine, but raws need this. Undoubtedly this will be fixed in the next release of Lightroom.

Better yet, use the Samsung DNG converter. This is a free utility which, when you attached your camera to your computer via its USB-3 cable, will autoload a transfer program which makes several Samsung programs available including the converter. This is a very clever approach on Samsung's part, and one that I've not seen before from any camera maker.


ISO and Noise

There isn't much to say about the NX1's high ISO capability other than that it is quite good – right up there with other state of the art APS-C sized sensors. In fact it may even have a slight edge over some because the pixel density is 28 Megapixel rather than the 24 MP as seen from some competitors, and 16-18MP from others.

This high IQ may well be attributable to the fact that this sensor is the industry's first APS-C sized chip with back side illumination. This means that real-estate on the front surface of the sensor has been moved to the rear, and thus there is a greater recording surface available. Certainly the NX1 doesn't seem to give anything up to its high resolution sensor, the densest in APC-C at the moment.

Above – books at full frame
Below – 100% crops 
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400

ISO 800
ISO 1600

ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
ISO 25600
na

I wouldn't hesitate to shoot many situations at ISO 3200 with this camera.


Burst Frame Rates and Focus Tracking

Though I don't shoot sports, I do occasionally shoot wildlife. High frame rates and focus tracking are therefore not high on my personal list of requirements. But, the claims from Samsung for the NX1 are so compelling: 205 phase detection point, 209 contrast detection points, 96% sensor coverage, 0.055 sec AF speed, and 15 FPS with AF for up to 70 frames, that I couldn't help by try a test.

I did a 65 frame burst and below you see frames #260, the second in the sequence, and frame # 317, almost the last one before the truck leaves the frame. 57 frames in other words, all shot in less than 5 seconds according to the displayed EXIF data.

  

100% crops

I've looked at every frame and can say that each one in the sequence is sharp. I was at 150mm on the 50-150mm lens, and at f/2.8 the lens' widest opening so that there would be shallow DOF. Shutter speed was 1/4000 sec. I would estimate that the truck was moving at 90 km/h and the angle of attack changed from about 20 degrees at the beginning to 80 degrees near the end. Impressive performance!


Video

One of the NX1's trump cards is 4K video in camera. If you are looking for state-of-the-art in video technology then look no further than the NX1. It does lack certain pro niceties such as low contrast log files, but even a cursory look shows that Samsung has pushed the industry forward in the area.

Due to my time constraints in November I was unable to do any serious testing of the NX1's video capabilities. But fortunately, the site EOSHD has done a very good initial review which should satisfy the curiosity of those looking for a 4K DSLR style camera. 

Help Support this site.  The Samsung NX-1 is avalable at B&H Photo

Summary

I applaud the fact that the NX1 is a big middle finger to the camera industry establishment that says – get off your butts and stop doling out new technology in dribs and drabs, because we've just shown you what's possible, and at a reasonable end-user price.

When Canon and Nikon awaken from their slumbers, they will have to look closely at what Samsung has done. No, they needn't worry about market share just yet, but they should realise that this sleeping Korean giant is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the years ahead.

Sony, who has been the upstart smart-ass of the industry, also should note that Samsung's new sensor technology means that Sony now has some serious competition in sensors. Similarly, Panasonic, Olympus and Fuji are going to have to keep the pedal to the metal, because unless Samsung lacks the staying power to persevere in the camera industry, the NX1 shows that it has both the cojones and the technology to become a major contender.

As for consumers – should you buy an NX1? Unless you really do need a broad selection of speciality lenses, I would say that there is a lot to admire about this camera – and it may well meet your needs. If I wasn't already heavily invested in two other systems, I would give it serious consideration myself, if only for its in-camera 4K video and high frame rates. The NX1 certainly provides excellent value for the money.

November, 2014

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Concepts: Camera, Frame rate, Single-lens reflex camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera, Twin-lens reflex camera, Sensor

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Tags: Samsung, camera, interchangeable lens camera, NX1, lens camera market, NX1 Samsung, Samsung DNG converter, Samsung UK, camera maker, DSLR style camera, mainstream camera makers, camera industry establishment, NX1 camera, proprietary Samsung, opinion Samsung, high frame rates, Samsung NX-1, Camera sales, Samsung programs, CSC-sized camera, high-spec interchangeable lens, new camera, party lens support, reasonable lens line, proprietary lens mount, lenses, profitable DSLR sales, new sensor technology, gain market share, high resolution sensor, APS-C-sized mid-tier DSLR, school case-study mistake, nuclear power plants, ultra fast AF, so-called mirrorless revolution, articulated rear LCD, consumer grade DSLRs, rear Function button, rear control wheel, separate programmable AF