Island life: Samsung NX500 Shooting Experience
It's impossible to talk about the NX500 without talking about its big brother the NX1, which we've been using intensively since it was launched later last year. I like the NX1 a lot. Even though most of my personal experience of shooting with it in late 2014 involved using a model running a beta version of a beta version of a beta version of Firmware 1.0, I was impressed.
This is despite the fact that the early NX1 I was using had more bugs in it than Edward Snowden's apartment, including a habit of resetting itself to German after every firmware update (and there were many firmware updates). Even with these frustrations, I still thought es war eine sehr gute Kamera.
Let's break this down. Here's a list of things I liked about shooting with the Samsung NX1 when I was traveling with it in late 2014, in priority order:
- Great EVF. Bright, contrasty and detailed - one of the best.
- Excellent detail, good dynamic range and good high ISO image quality from its APS-C 28MP CMOS sensor.
- Impressively fast, accurate autofocus, especially with new 'S' series fast zoom lenses. This has been further improved in firmware v1.2.
- Excellent build quality and weather-sealing compared to previous NX models and many competitive cameras at this price point.
- Fast maximum frame rate (much faster than I need) and generous buffer.
- Smaller and lighter than a Nikon D810 (the other camera I was using a lot around that time).
- Finally - I'm not a huge video shooter but hey, look - 4K video! And you don't need to buy an external recorder - the H.265 format is a bit awkward for now, but it's much more space efficient than H.264.
So why do I only enjoy the NX500 about 50% as much as the NX1? It's quite simple, really.
Of the seven standout NX1 features listed above, in my opinion the NX500 really only hits three of them - specifically still image quality, autofocus, and a size and weight benefit compared to a DSLR. We've described the NX500 a few times as being a stripped-down version of the NX1, and that's essentially true. The AF system is the same, it can shoot pretty quickly (but not quite as quickly), the user interface is much the same, the 28MP sensor is the same, it can capture 4K video, and the still imaging pipeline is identical.
But there's no EVF (more on that later) and although, yes, the NX500 shoots 4K video, it locks into an aggressive 1.6X crop mode, meaning that at its headline video quality setting (4K is even written on the front of the camera) you're effectively working with a 2.4X crop factor (making the 16-50mm kit zoom into a 38-120mm equivalent).
Build quality is excellent, but it isn't as good as the everything-proof NX1 (nor does Samsung claim it should be) and although a maximum frame rate of 9 fps is plenty fast enough for anything a laggard like me might ever want to do, a buffer depth of only five Raw files at 9 fps is miserable. We were surprised by these drastic performance differences between the NX500 and NX1, and it turns out that although the two cameras both feature a 'DRIMe V' processor, the one in the NX500 is a DRIMe V 's'. The 's' - we're told - stands for 'slim'.
Other consequences of this slimmed-down processor compared to the NX1 include the omission of support for UHS-II-type SD cards, no 4K video output over HDMI (it's FHD only), and the loss of a 'Pro' quality setting for video footage. Still image quality is unaffected, and to any practical extent the NX500 offers exactly the same stills as the considerably more expensive NX1.
Personally, as noted above, I'm not much of a video shooter so I don't really care about the 1.6X crop or lack of 4K to HDMI output, but anyone looking at the NX500 as a low-cost component in a 4K mirrorless system should be aware that although both the NX1 and the NX500 can record 4K video, they're really not comparable in terms of ability. Likewise the camera's built-in connectivity features. I'm not really the target audience, but I must say that having played around quite a lot with the WiFi function on the NX500, it's impressively robust and works very well when transferring images from the camera to my phone. The only minor frustration is the formatting of Samsung's iOS version of the Smart Camera app, which has been optimized for the screens of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, leaving owners of older iPhones with a squished-looking interface in some windows.
What I do care about is still image quality, and usability - again, specifically when shooting stills. On these points the NX500 is a mixed bag. Still image quality is excellent, just like the NX1. Resolution is superb when the camera is paired with a high-quality lens, dynamic range is very good, allowing for plenty of pretty aggressive Raw processing, and JPEGs look fine (I don't shoot JPEG much, but beyond mushy detail at high ISO I'd have few complaints if I did). The NX500's autofocus system is very good indeed, as I expected, and although I haven't had a chance to really test out its tracking abilities there's no reason to think that it will perform any worse than the exceptionally capable NX1.
Ergonomically, the NX500 is pretty similar to the NX300 that preceded it (with the exception of an additional control dial). When it comes to usability the most significant difference between the NX500 and the NX1 is also the most obvious - there's no viewfinder. Personally I really like viewfinders. I find them pretty much essential for outdoor work in order to get a decent idea of color, exposure and framing. Indoors and at night it's less of a limitation but even here, I find that I get a much more stable hold on a camera if it's pressed close to my eye compared to held outstretched in my hands. With this in mind, Samsung's choice of sunny Hawaii (aloha!) for a 48-hour shooting event to introduce the viewfinder-less NX500 to journalists was perhaps unfortunate.
With the obvious exception of the nighttime hours, I spent almost the entire time on the island trying (and mostly failing) to shade the Super AMOLED display so I could compose images in very bright sunshine. The on-screen histogram was essential to ensure decent exposures but while I didn't come home with many too-dark or too-bright shots (testament also to the NX500's excellent metering system) I do have plenty where something or someone ended up in the corner without me noticing when I was trying to frame the image.
Honestly though, as far as usability goes that's about it for major complaints. I like flip-out displays a lot for low-angle shooting and Samsung's touchscreen interfaces for setting focus and manipulating on-screen controls on the NX1 and NX500 are among the best available. The twin-dial interface makes shooting in any of the ASM exposure modes a breeze and the nicely rubberized grip feels substantial and provides good purchase when shooting one-handed.
The NX500's flip-out rear display is excellent for low-angle shooting.
Also - for now at least - the menu system, while impressively deep, doesn't feel overloaded (we're looking at you, Olympus). That's not to say that it's entirely intuitive though. Samsung has a long and storied history of giving menu items bizarre, or at least pretty unguessable names and this tradition is alive and well in the NX500.
Maybe you want to stop the camera from grouping images taken into burst mode into weird little slideshows in playback, for example. Actually yes - like any sane person you definitely want to do this. To accomplish this action you need to hit 'menu' while in playback mode, scroll down to 'View Continuous Shots Fold / Unfold' and select 'Unfold'. Would you have been able to guess that?
In the same menu, some might find the 'Sort by Oldest / Latest' option a little confusingly worded ('latest' means most recent, in this case) but at least that's guessable. By contrast I eventually gave up and had to turn to the user manual to work out what 'Framing Mode on / off' means. It turns out that this is what virtually every manufacturer calls live view exposure simulation. With framing mode turned on, the camera continues to supply a correctly balanced live view feed, regardless of actual exposure settings applied. Voila. Options like this (and there are a few of them) are gloriously, almost gleefully opaque.
Let's be honest though - it's not like the camera doesn't come with a manual, and it's likely that the options I just picked out are 'set once and forget'. Since I started using that buggy, early production NX1 way back in late 2014 Samsung has addressed a lot of quirks and oddities, and the fixes (based in part on feedback from DPReview) have made their way into the NX500. The same goes for the enhancements too. The NX500 features the firmware 1.2 version of the NX1's AF system and we're told that additional features like focus peaking during video shooting will be added in due course, too.
I really hope that Samsung can improve the NX500's Raw buffer via a firmware update, but I'm not holding my breath. This is a real weak point, especially given the inevitable comparisons with the much more capable NX1. But even next to cameras like Sony's a6000 the NX500's 5-frame Raw buffer at 9 fps is wretched. By comparison the a6000 manages ~22 Raw files before slowing from 11 fps.
|This shot was converted from an ISO 2000 Raw file, and although I should probably spend some time neutralising the shadow area in the foreground (and perhaps applying slightly more aggressive noise reduction), it's clear that despite pretty aggressive shadow lifting, there's plenty of detail in there. The original exposure was biased for the bright highlight in the middle of the scene.
ISO 2500 | F6.3 | 1/30sec | Samsung NX 16-50mm F2-2.8 S
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So - in summary. I like the NX500. Despite some of the criticism above, I actually like it a lot. As a stills photographer who mostly sticks to single-frame advance mode, the NX500 is quick enough, reliable enough and certainly capable of good enough image quality to keep me very happy. The main thing which might keep me from buying one is the lack of an EVF. I've come to really enjoy using cameras like the Fujifilm X-T1 and X100T as well as Sony's a6000, and I'm used to relying on their excellent built-in viewfinders for composition in bright light (and for compositional stability at slower shutter speeds).
If you're not bothered by the lack of a viewfinder (or the restricted crop in 4K video capture) the NX500 is a superb camera for the price and one that is capable of delivering great results. But I'm saving up for an NX1. I wonder if Samsung will let me 'ditch' that Nikon D50 I found at my local thrift store in exchange...
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