Samsung NX1 Shooting Experience

By Dale Baskin

When I first picked up the Samsung NX1 I wasn't sure if it was a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. OK, I knew it was a mirrorless camera, but my point is that it didn't feel like a mirrorless camera. I've used many mirrorless systems over the years and there's always something that gives them away. Usually it's the size, but sometimes it's simply some aspect of their design.

And then there's the NX1. It looks and feels unabashedly like a DSLR, and with features including a very usable viewfinder, 15 fps shooting with continuous autofocus, and instantly responsive controls it can absolutely provide a DSLR experience.

At the same time, Samsung leverages the mirrorless aspect of the NX1's design to provide things that you generally don't find on DSLRs such as enhanced viewfinder displays and a video feature set designed to take on the best systems on the market.

The NX1 is Samsung's flagship mirrorless camera.

What we're left with is a camera that tries to straddle a unique space between the DSLR and mirrorless worlds, trying to provide all the benefits of both while sacrificing none. That's great on paper, but I wanted to answer the obvious question: Does it work?

Viewfinder and Controls:

Ergonomically, the camera is well designed and has a very DSLR-like feel. The grip fits well in my medium-sized hands and is both solid and comfortable, while the twin dials and other controls are well laid out. I had absolutely no problem adjusting to them quickly.

The only exception to the excellent ergonomics are the four buttons on top of the dial that control ISO, WB, AF, and metering, which feel a bit Nikon-esque. I've been using the NX1 for several weeks and have yet to find a situation where reaching these buttons doesn't feel awkward. Add in their small size and they're even harder to find without looking at the dial. Fortunately, the same functions can be replicated elsewhere using custom settings.

The four buttons on top of the left dial are reminiscent of a Nikon control layout. They're awkward to reach when using the camera, and small enough that you need to feel around for them. Thankfully, their functionality can be replicated elsewhere using custom settings.

The first time I looked through the NX1's viewfinder I realized this was a different type of mirrorless camera. Samsung's 2.36M dot OLED EVF is big and beautiful with crisp, bright colors. Samsung has done a great job of designing the viewfinder's display; aperture and shutter information are highlighted in blue as you change them, and the exposure needle is a bold red against a white scale.

Although the EVF has a lag time of 5ms, in practice it's effectively zero; you see things in real time just as you would through an optical viewfinder. Overall, the EVF experience is right up there with the highly rated Fujifilm X-T1, though I prefer the EVF on the NX1 thanks to its great visual design. It's quite possibly the nicest EVF I've used on a stills camera.

Just so nobody accuses me of saying this later, let me be clear that you're not going to mistake the EVF for a true optical viewfinder. It's qualitatively different than looking through a prism, but in exchange you get excellent display overlays such as histograms and level line, real time WYSIWYG exposure simulation, and the ability to use the viewfinder while shooting video.

The NX1's viewfinder is bright, crisp, and makes good use of color to highlight settings at a glance.

The key, and this is why I think Samsung has done a really good job, is that once I started shooting with NX1 it was easy to forget that I was using an EVF and I just got on with taking photos, which is a great indication that Samsung has found a good balance between technology and usability.

The camera has plenty of customization options, and most of the dials and buttons can be modified via custom settings. I found myself shooting this camera a lot in aperture priority mode and found it useful to set the rear command dial to adjust EV in 1/3 stop increments. This worked well for day-to-day shooting, and was particularly nice due to the NX1's very clear display of EV adjustments in the viewfinder.

There are a couple aspects of the NX1's user interface I do find frustrating. First, the touch screen can sometimes be a bit too sensitive; a simple swipe can send menus scrolling off at warp speed. Additionally, a few of the touch screen menu buttons are just a bit too small. As a result, I often found myself navigating menus with the four way controller instead.

The NX1's rear control layout doesn't break any new ground, but that's OK because it works really well. Almost every button as well as the rear wheel can be customized if desired.

The rear command dial can be customized as well, including different settings for different modes. For example, you could set it to adjust EV in aperture priority mode and ISO in shutter priority mode.

Also, for some reason the default button setup for reviewing images is backward from virtually every other camera I've ever used. Clicking the four way controller to the right moves you back in time while clicking to the left moves you forward in time. The original version of the camera we received from Samsung didn't provide any mechanism to change this, but it was included as a custom function in a subsequent version of firmware based on our feedback.

Finally, the NX1 doesn't offer an option to instantly zoom to 100% view at the focus point of an image with a single tap of a button. This can be a useful feature as it lets you quickly check focus after taking a shot. The nearest approximation on the NX1 is to double tap the image on the touch screen to zoom to 100%, which always seemed to become a two handed operation. Also, the NX1 doesn't show you what focus point was used so it just zooms wherever you double tap. It's too bad this feature is missing because with a EVF you could quiclkly zoom in and check focus without ever taking your eye off the viewfinder – something no DSLR could do.

It's worth noting that Samsung has been good about providing firmware updates for the NX1, addressing a lot of feedback provided by DPReview (and others). The result is a camera that's much more usable than when we first received it. We applaud Samsung for this proactive approach to continuous improvement.

Shooting:

After a couple weeks using the NX1 I was ready for a challenge and headed out to a park to photograph a soccer match (sorry... football for those of you outside the U.S. and Canada). I took along Samsung's 50-150mm F2.8 S lens (75-225mm equivalent) so I could shoot from the sidelines. I was just on the heels of testing the Canon 7D Mark II, a camera that performed really well when shooting sports, so it took it along with Canon 70-200mm F2.8 IS lens for an informal comparison.

Overall I was really impressed with the NX1's performance. Continuous shooting at 15 fps is scary fast if you're not used to it. Having done a lot of 10 fps shooting with the 7D II recently, that 50% increase in speed caught me off guard. It wasn't until I got back to my computer that I realized how many photos I had taken. Fortunately, continuous shooting speed can be slowed down if desired, but make no mistake – it's there if you want it.

I was looking forward to shooting those high frame rates on a camera with no mirror blackout. Of course, there's still a shutter that needs to open and close, so I didn't expect continuous live view either. But I was hoping for some live view. Instead, when shooting at the fastest frame rate you see a series of still images as you capture them, making it difficult to follow or anticipate action through the viewfinder. It's not so bad if the action is coming toward you, but it's more difficult if the action is panning across the frame. Reducing the burst rate helps a bit in this regard as it leaves just enough time between frames to get a bit of live view in the viewfinder. I found that 8 frames per second made it a bit easier to follow the action in the EVF. If you don't absolutely need the fastest frame rate this may be a good compromise.

I decided to try the NX1's subject tracking abilities, so I set up the camera to select the initial AF points and then track the subject. (You also have the ability to specify the initial AF point and let the camera begin tracking from there.) Initial focus was generally very fast, and as long as a player remained well lit, the flurry of bright green AF points did an admirable job of sticking with him or her.

The NX1 started tracking this player at the left side of the frame. As he moved (and I reframed) the AF points stayed on him as he crossed to center and turned to kick.

The original image was underexposed, but it recovered well in Adobe Camera Raw (exposure +1.50, highlights -25, shadows +7). Shot at ISO 5000.

Subject tracking was generally reliable as long as a subject was reasonably well isolated. I didn't realistically expect the system to track an individual player running straight through a pack of 10 other people, but frustratingly I ran in to a number of cases where tracking would jump from my primary subject to a secondary subject far in the background even when my subject was well isolated.

I haven't been able to quantify it, but there seemed to be a brightness threshold at which the camera's phase detect AF system became less effective and it relied more on the contrast detect system. I noticed this in shadow areas and areas with dark background. Once I reached this threshold the camera would begin searching back and forth. A lot. In a few cases it just refused to focus on anything and I had to focus manually before the AF system would begin working again.

So how did the NX1 compare to the Canon 7D II at the soccer game? I nailed focus on more shots with the Canon (though not by a huge margin) as it struggled less in low light than the Samsung. The Canon AF system just felt more mature. In fairness, Canon's AF system has been evolving for years while the NX1 is still the new kid on the block. Where that new kid really excelled, however, was subject tracking. The NX1 wasn't perfect, but it was more adept at sticking with a subject than Canon's iTR tracking system.

I was also curious about the NX1's ability to maintain continuous autofocus while shooting at 15 fps, so I decided to photograph my colleague Richard (who happens to be a dedicated cyclist) as he rode on a local bike trail. Shooting opportunity for me, free photos for Richard. Win-win situation.

I was again shooting with the Samsung 50-150mm F2.8 lens, zoomed to the long end, and Richard was coming at me pretty fast, so even at 15 fps his position was shifting between shots. For the most part the NX1 kept pace with Richard, tracking him both toward the camera and across the frame, and I could see the cloud of AF points staying right on top of him. Only when he got very close did it begin to lose him. While not every shot was in focus, the percentage was high.

Even at 15 fps Richard was moving quite a bit between shots. The NX1's continuous focus kept up effectively, though the exact point of focus moved around a bit; sometimes the camera would focus on his jersey or the handlebars instead of his face. Shooting with a user-defined AF point instead of letting the camera choose the AF would probably be more consistent.

Overall, I found shooting with the NX1 to be a very satisfying experience. AF was fast and accurate, especially with Samsung's S series of lenses, such as the 16-50mm F2-2.8 S and 50-150mm F2.8 S, and the body and controls handled very well. I've often tolerated electronic viewfinders, even relatively good ones, but I actually enjoyed using the EVF on the NX1. It's not a perfect replacement for an optical finder, but after using the NX1 for a while and then picking up a camera such as the Canon 7D Mark II or the Nikon D750 I found myself missing the NX1's EVF. Kudos to Samsung.