Gear of the Year Part 4: Dale's pick - Samsung NX1
Before anything else, let’s address the elephant in the room: for my Gear of the Year I’ve just selected a camera whose future appears a bit dark. As in 'Luke, I am your father' kind of dark. The Samsung NX1 was the camera that some photographers saw as A New Hope for the future, but there’s a disturbance in The Force with signs that the Dark Side might prevail when it comes to Samsung’s camera business.
Some might find my lack of faith disturbing, but I have a bad feeling about this...
It wasn’t an easy choice. On the one hand, how could I choose a product that has more clouds hanging over it than the DPReview offices on a December day in Seattle? On the other, there’s a bunch of engineers somewhere who built a serious kick-ass camera that continues to impress us with its features, quality, and performance. So, yeah… I’m going with the Samsung NX1.
What I love:
- Best in class image and video quality
- Excellent design and handling
- My favorite EVF of any still camera
- Outstanding AF performance
- Continuous improvement through firmware updates
“You must unlearn what you have learned…”
To provide a bit of context, I’m historically an SLR shooter, though I’ve gone through my share of rangefinders, compact cameras, and other random stuff that converts light into images. For the past several years I’ve relied on a system built mostly around one manufacturer’s products that I could trust day-in and day-out to work reliably and predictably when I had to get it right the first time (in my case Canon).
But in recent years I’ve also been using a lot of mirrorless cameras, particularly Panasonic’s GH series, for video work. I love the idea of what mirrorless cameras can do, and in particular I love the flexibility they provide for shooting video. However, mirrorless cameras never provided the level of performance that I needed for some projects.
Cloud City: the Space Needle rises from a foggy Seattle sunset.
Samsung 50-150mm F2.8 S lens, ISO 100, 1/1250 sec. at F5.6
Enter the Samsung NX1. I’ll freely admit that little more than a year ago Samsung was barely on my radar as a camera manufacturer. I knew Samsung made cameras, but like that guy who shows up to every party but never gets noticed, Samsung’s products lurked in the shadows where I conveniently looked past them. Then Barney asked me to review the NX1 as one of my first assignments at DPReview.
I was blown away. The NX1 was the first mirrorless camera that made me forget that I wasn’t shooting a DSLR. And that was using a camera with pre-production firmware.
Don’t misunderstand - I’m not implying that the pre-production NX1 was perfect. The camera had a nasty habit of crashing and re-booting into German, menu items occasionally went walkabout, and a couple of lenses sometimes decided that they would no longer autofocus. But despite its flaws it was fun to use and hinted at great things to come.
Samsung fixed most of those annoyances with a firmware update, and I spent the next month shooting the NX1 almost every day, sleeping with it under my pillow to absorb its goodness, and pushing the video to its limits.
All was good in the world. Several weeks later I was ready to publish my review, but three days before it was scheduled to go live on our site Samsung released another major firmware update. That changed everything.
|Samsung 16-50mm F2-2.8 S lens, ISO 4000, 1/125 sec. at F2.8|
With the updated firmware the NX1 was practically a new camera. It added numerous video features including additional frame rates, gamma curves, and other custom settings. Autofocus improved significantly for both stills and video, and new customization options gave users an additional level of control over the camera.
My review was toast. A couple months later, after re-testing the entire camera again and writing a new review, we were ready to go to press one more time when… wait for it… Samsung released another firmware update. Fortunately, this update wasn't as dramatic as the previous one, so we made an editorial decision to go ahead and publish anyway lest we repeat the process in perpetuity, but you get the idea.
I share this backstory because it highlights one of my favorite things about the NX1: Samsung seems (seemed?) intent on not just innovating a great product, but on a program of continued improvement. These weren’t just minor firmware updates, but things that significantly impacted the performance and value of the camera.
“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”
But as we all know, a camera is not just about electronics and firmware. It’s also about hardware. It needs to be well designed, solidly built, and most importantly it needs to feel right in your hand.
That last item is a bit nebulous and hard to define, but anyone who’s been shooting for more than a few years knows the feeling of picking up a camera that just feels right. I’m convinced that Samsung did the unthinkable and actually involved photographers in the design of this camera, something I can’t say about every model that comes through the DPReview offices. (And you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, I assure you.)
Not only does the NX1 feel great in your hand, but it’s solid. Maybe not solid in a 'I can use my Nikon F3 to pound nails into a board' type of way (and really, what is anymore?), but it’s certainly tough enough to stand up to typical professional use.
At one point I took the NX1 on a winter shoot where the temperature hovered in the range of 0 to 5 degrees F (-18 to -15 C). Based on previous experience with mirrorless cameras I fully expected to run into trouble at some point. I didn’t. Like the Energizer Bunny the NX1 kept going, and going and going… Everything just worked, including the EVF and touch screen, for several hours in sub-freezing temperatures. I gave in before the camera did.
Some like it Hoth: Even after a couple hours outdoors working at 0˚ F (-18˚ C) temperatures, the NX1 continued to operate normally. In this case, the camera outlasted me.
Samsung 50-150mm F2.8 S lens, ISO 160, 1/500 sec. at F2.8
Speaking of the EVF, it’s one of the standout things I love about this camera. It’s clear, bright, and has essentially zero lag. You won’t mistake it for a true optical viewfinder, but it works so well that 1) I don’t care, and 2) after a short period of time I simply forget about it and just get on with shooting. I know other cameras have EVFs with similar specs for resolution and lag, but somehow Samsung has managed to make the EVF experience on the NX1 exceed the sum of its parts.
“She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”
The other thing that almost makes me forget I’m using a mirrorless camera when shooting the NX1 is its performance. I’ve shot cameras with 10 fps shooting speeds before, but even so the NX1’s 15 fps is scary fast. As in ‘you could easily tell if Greedo shot first’ fast. (Did he? Share your opinion in the comments!) And with 28MP of resolution to play with you would have plenty of detail to examine closeups of those blaster shots. Combine that speed with an AF system that, somewhat incredibly, is able to keep pace and it’s a blast to shoot with.
I say almost because high speed shooting isn’t quite perfected yet. The screen briefly freezes on each exposure, making it a tad difficult to shoot continuously while panning with a subject, and the best part of the AF system - ‘Tracking AF’ - can only be invoked from the touch screen, but overall it’s as good as almost every DSLR I’ve used, and better than most.
Samsung’s 28MP sensor doesn’t really provide any additional detail beyond the standard 24MP found on most APS-C cameras, but in terms of quality it’s right up there with the best of them, including the very impressive Nikon D7200. I also love the fact that I can push exposure in post several stops with almost no penalty to image quality, a feature I’ve leveraged to underexpose in order to preserve highlights.
|This photo from Channel Islands National Park in California is actually a single frame of 4K video from the NX1. (Samsung 50-150mm F2.8 lens, exposure unrecorded)|
I mentioned above that I do a lot of video work, something that has pushed me into using two parallel camera systems in recent years. In principle, the NX1 could replace both systems. Its video is as good as my go-to workhorse, the Panasonic GH4, but in a package that provides the performance of a high-end DSLR.
In fact, in my perfect world where I can use one system for everything, the NX1 comes remarkably close to meeting almost all my needs.
If we can momentarily ignore that whole ‘Will Samsung even be in the camera business in a few months?’ thing, I’m still not completely convinced that I could make a wholesale switch to the NX system as it stands today. Samsung still doesn’t have as many lens options as competing systems - though some of their lenses are outstanding - and the company hasn’t managed to foster a strong third party ecosystem of tools and adapters similar to what we've seen for mirrorless systems from Panasonic and Sony. As much as I like the NX1 these are real limitations.
|Laugh it up, fuzzball! Samsung 50-150mm F2.8 S lens, ISO 640, 1/500 sec. at F2.8|
“Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”
There is no shortage of rumors about the future of Samsung’s camera business, and believe it or not we here at DPReview don’t know any more than you. But I think I speak for the whole team when I say that we would be disappointed if Samsung didn’t continue to pursue this market, especially since the company has been one of the most innovative in the business of late. Notably, the NX1 won DPReview’s 2015 Innovation Award amid some very credible competition.
Some people have suggested to that Samsung tried its luck in the camera market but never completely committed to it. I'm not convinced that's the case, but my advice to Samsung is to be bold and heed the words of a great philosopher who said 'Do or do not. There is no try,' and stick with it. However, in the event that the NX1’s future is not long for this galaxy, my hope is that it doesn’t go quietly into the starry night, but instead continues to live on in some form or inspires other manufacturers to make products that push the limits of what's possible.