Review: Samsung NX1 4K Mirrorless Compact System Camera
My first SLR, the Pentax Spotmatic F, and my second, the Nikon F, were iconic cameras. They broke new ground and set new standards for their time. My gut tells me Samsung’s flagship NX1 mirrorless camera will be joining the list.
The NX1 ($1,499.99 for the body only) is Samsung’s first true professional-level interchangeable lens camera, and it comes loaded with cutting-edge features including: a 28.2 megapixel APS-C BSI CMOS sensor; 23.5 x 15.7mm internal [email protected], 4K [email protected] and 1080p at up to 60fps (120 fps in 1080i); advanced hybrid autofocus system utilizing 205 phase-detect and 209 contrast-detection AF points; 100-25,600 native ISO range, expandable to 51,200; 76.6mm (3-inch) 1,036k-dot Super AMOLED touch screen; 10-12 stops of dynamic range; and H.265 video recording system with uncompressed 8-bit, 4:2:2, 4K output via HDMI.
More of our review of the Samsung NX1 mirrorless compact system camera after the jump:
Still formats supported by the NX1 include: SRW RAW, JPEG, MPO (3D) and it will capture up to [email protected] in fast continuous shooting mode. Other features include: built-in intervalometer to create 6.5K time lapse videos; Android OS with both Android and iOS app controllability; Wi-Fi and Bluetooth sharing; a fast DRIMe V image processing engine; ultra-high 1/8000 second shutter speed; professional bit-rate of 80Mbit/s in 4K and 40Mbit/s in Full HD; intelligent auto shooting modes (baseball, jump shot, trap shot); and a USB 2.0 or 3.0 connection for charging. The camera measures 5.47×4.02×2.6 inches.
USB Battery charge
Solid grip and excellent balance
NFC, Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
Wi-Fi can send pictures but only one at a time
Good app integration
Nice button layout
Separate video and stills buttons next to each other
Super AMOLED screen with essentially no lag
Wide ISO range
At fast shutter speeds high speed [email protected] can be cleaner than some cameras at 60fps
Scene modes work very well
The NX1 can output 4K 4:2:2 8-bit video over HDMI for capture on an external recorder.
Can do rack focus shots using touch screen
28.2 MP backside illuminated sensor
Hybrid AF system with phase-detect points covering 90% of frame
153 cross-type AF points with industry-leading frame coverage
Mostly effective subject tracking
High quality 4K video performance
4K 4:2:2 8-bit video out
Outstanding dynamic range and low light image quality
15 fps burst shooting
Small screen size
Glitchy autofocus with rear-subject illumination
Lacks custom settings to hold frame rate
Lacks 4K 60fps recording
Lacks 10-bit or 12-bit color sampling
HDMI output limits too many features. You have to unplug to get to them
Flash “shadows” appear using 16-50mm lens at wide angles.
Lacks EVF cover screen
Movie Converter software lacks advanced and basic features, including batch settings, and slow file conversion.
The NX1 gets an A+ for ergonomics. It is constructed with die-cast magnesium alloy providing a light and sturdy frame. The overall size of the camera body equates to a mid-sized DSLR.
The hand grip feels extremely stable and comfortable in the hand. This is important when you shoot all day long. The body is splash resistant, even when combined with the “S” Series lenses.
At 610 grams, the weight is less than a Canon 5D Mark III (950grams) or the Sony A7RII (625grams) but slightly more than the Panasonic GH4 (569grams).
Control layout is both familiar and unique. The top dials are where you would expect them to be. The mode control dial features a useful locking button to avoid mistakenly changing settings. The left-hand dial offers ISO, AutoFocus, metering and white balance adjustments. The lower part of the dial handles drive operation, single shot, normal continuous shooting, self-timer and bracketing.
Harkening back to classic cameras, the top-mounted LCD supplies almost every setting in one view. Separate still shutter and video record buttons are placed right next to each other, allowing a simple slide of the thumb to activate either function. The video record button is recessed a little too much, however, and the closeness of the exposure compensation button can lead to mistakenly pressing the wrong button. But activating exposure compensation requires both pressing the button and turning one of the thumb wheel controls, which prevents accidental adjustments.
Stills and Video Formats
The NX1 captures 6,480×4,320 stills in a 3:2 aspect ratio and 3,840×2,160 4K UHD video in 16:9 ratio, requiring a customizable backside menu dial with a default set to change the image to display the proper aspect ratio.
However, when you utilize the auto focus by executing a half press of the still shutter, the display snaps into 6,480×4,320 – 3:2 aspect ratio, and when you press the video record button, the screen reverts to the 16:9 ratio, which can be annoying while framing.
Super AMOLED Touch Screen
The Super AMOLED touch screen is bright, clean and clear, although the sliding tilt hinge on the display is less-effective than a swing-out and-twist variety would have been. Selfies are best supported using a Smartphone App connection. A useful tool is the tap-to-focus function on the view screen in live-view mode. I was able to do a smooth rack focus just by tapping the screen.
Equally pleasing is the companion 1,024×768 OLED viewfinder, which can be set to either color or black & white in the menu for more critical focusing situations.
Auto focus was fast and accurate about 90 percent of the time, using Samsung’s two best lenses.
Sensor and Processor
The large Back Side Illuminated CMOS image sensor design produces additional light and better sensitivity that boosts low-light performance and yields the native resolution range of ISO 100-25,600, which can be electronically stretched to 51,200.
The DRIMe V (pronounced DREAM) image processing engine (a quad-core chip) takes all the information gathered by the sensor to create images at a rate of up to 15fps for 90 images (with the 1.40 firmware upgrade) in Superfine JPEG or 25 images in SRW RAW. That’s 700 million pixels at 15fps. So, where shooting 4K UHD video at 30fps means that you are capturing 30 – 8MP images every second, in continuous shooting the engine is handling 15 – 28MP images every second.
In comparison, the Nikon D4S shoots 16MP at 11fps and costs almost 3-1/2 times more than the Samsung NX1.
Advanced Hybrid AF System
The NX1’s processing engine also handles autofocus (AF) duties using two different system approaches. With 205 phase-dect and 209 contrast-detection AF points built into the sensor, the camera has lightning fast focus.
Using a hybrid AF system approach provides optimal results for different shooting situations. Contrast AF works better on faces and portrait work while phase detection is more efficient at quickly adjusting for fast-moving objects.
Spreading the AF detection points across the entire surface of the sensor with a denser alignment towards the center produces the most efficient results.
The phase detection AF system compares two complimentary images of the selected subject. The difference in the distance between the two images tells the camera how much to refocus, either nearer or further.
Contrast-detection AF measures the subject contrast ratio. If the ratio increases, then the camera knows it’s going the right way. If it decreases, it reverses course and goes back. While all of this trial and error measuring happens very quickly, a slight blurring, sometimes referred to as breathing, may result before the focus snaps into place.
Where the hybrid AF system does struggle is in cases where an extremely bright back light is positioned directly next to or behind the subject.
The NX1 provides three autofocus settings to choose from, Single AF (SAF), Continuous AF (CAF) and Active AF (AAF).
SAF is designed for shooting still subjects. A half-press of the shutter adjusts the focus in the boxed focus area. When in focus the box has a green outline.
CAF is the workhorse position. This is designed to continually adjust the focus. You can resize or move the focus box using the touchscreen or the command dial.
AAF will flip between SAF and CAF as needed. So if the subject is far away but moving towards the camera, it would start with SAF and as the image gets closer and bigger it would switch automatically to CAF. Manual assisted focusing either enlarges the picture by 5x or 8x.
My personal choice is to use CAF for video and SAF for stills.
In video, the speed of the processor enables recording 4K to the internal SDHC cards. Images are captured using the H.265 codec to capture compressed video files while retaining most of the original image data.
Selection AF allows using the touch screen to decide on a focus point, and Zone AF will set the AF to adjust within a preset area of the image, while helping adjust for camera movement.
Multi AF displays a green rectangle in places where focus is set correctly. The photo is divided into two or more areas, and the camera obtains focus points of each area. This mode is useful for landscape photos.
Face detection AF is helpful for group photo settings.
Using self-portrait AF can be tricky when checking whether your face is in focus in self-portrait work. When this function is on, the camera beeps faster when your face is in focus and located at the center of the composition.
The following modes combine with the Focus Assist Modes for the greatest efficiency outside of manual focus: Touch AF; AF Point; Tracking AF; and One Touch Shot.
For video, the NX1 captures both 4K DCI (4096 x 2160)@24p and UHD (3840×2160)@23.98p, 24p, 25p/30p plus Full HD (1920×1080)@up to 120fps, 60p/50p, 25p/30p, 23.98p, 1280×720, and 640×480.
The use of the H.265 codec is both a “Pro” and a “Con”. As a “Pro”, H.265 will be the new codec standard for camera recording, just as H.264 was before it.
The “Con,” is the fact that few non-linear editing (NLE) systems on the market can edit the codec. In fact, until recently it was hard to find a player that worked properly. But Samsung supplies both a player and a converter for the H.265 codec. On the plus side, software companies are already developing NLE programs to edit this tightly compressed codec.
True 6.5K Video in TimeLapse
The Samsung NX1 has a built in intervalometer for doing time lapse and it will even process the image files into a 4K video file, but I found it best to leave the image sequence as is. When you import an image into the NLE (adjust first in Lightroom photo editing software for best results) you will have a 6.5K video in a 3:2 aspect ratio. Zoom in to 60 percent and the image will fill the screen with the option to crop at the top or bottom of the frame. The 6.5K resolution enables zooming in an image with little effect on the image quality.
The camera captures dynamic range in video well. Dynamic range is the ratio between the minimum and maximum levels of useable light captured by the camera.
When shooting at sunset with the sun visible in the shot and deep black elements in the frame, the True Dynamic Range would be measured between the highest degree of white that isn’t blowing out and the most visible detail in the blackest area.
Although the Samsung NX1 does not have a raw or LOG setting for video, it does have GammaDR and Smart Range+, which work together to increase the available range.
I used, ISO settings of 100 to 800 in testing for dynamic range. Shutter speed plays a factor in that lower shutter speeds are great for gathering more light for shadow areas and higher shutter speeds bring out the highlights.
Shooting at 100 ISO, at its best the NX1 affords 12-1/2 stops of dynamic range. At worst, it bottoms out at 10 to 11 stops. The results drop steadily with any ISO over 800.
Here’s a tip: using the NX1, and depending on the lighting and the exposure, aim for proper exposure of the highlights, as the camera really holds the details in the shadows. The trick is to slightly underexpose highlights and the correct and expand later in post.
The menu needs page numbers. This would be a simple but extremely effective way to find an adjustment setting or feature, otherwise menu operation is smooth and easy with either touch screen or dial control.
The NX1 provides a host of shooting modes for new photographers, including: Smart Shot, Picture Wizard and Smart Filters. Picture Wizard provides the option to pre-adjust an image with built-in looks, or users can save a look in Custom Settings.
Built in choices include: standard; classic, which applies a black-and-white effect; vivid with highly saturated colors; portrait, which creates natural skin tones; landscape emphasizes the forest greenery; retro, which produces a brown sepia tone; cool, which adds accent to the cool blues; and “calm,” which creates a calm scene effect.
Samsung also provides an assortment of smart filter options, including: vignetting, which applies retro-looking colors, high contrast, and strong vignette effect; miniature (H) applies a tilt-shift effect to make the subject appear in miniature or toy-like, while the top and bottom of the frame are blurred; miniature (V) applies a tilt-shift effect to make the subject appear in miniature, while the left and right of the frame are blurred; watercolor applies a watercolor painting effect to the picture; red de-saturate removes all colors but red and green de-saturate removes all colors but green.
Samsung Auto Shot
Similarly, the camera offers an assortment of auto-shot modes including the following: beauty face captures a portrait with options to hide facial imperfections; landscape captures still-life scenes and landscapes; action freeze captures subjects moving at high speed; rich tones captures a photo with vibrant colors in HDR; panorama captures a wide panoramic scene in a single photo; waterfall captures scenes with waterfalls; multi-exposure captures multiple photos and overlaps them to create one photo; Samsung auto shot action captures action photos, such as someone hitting a baseball, of making a jump shot; silhouette captures subjects as dark shapes against a light background and sunset captures scenes at sunset, with natural-looking reds and yellows.
These tools work fine, but for best results in many cases, turn them “off”, and shoot in SRW RAW mode. Then adjust the images in Lightroom or Photoshop to achieve the desired effect. Just keep in mind that if you are shooting in RAW only, the Smart Filters setting will be greyed out in the menu along with the choice of photo size.
With one button on the lens and two dials on the body you can set the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure value, white balance and Intelli-Zoom.
This allows making adjustments on the fly using the two command dials at the top and back of the camera. Customization of the features are available through the menu under “iFn Customizing”.
The trio of NFC, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth put the NX1 at the top of its class where wireless connectivity is concerned. Dual-band communication features a choice of 2.4GHz or 5GHz transmission, providing more connectivity options in overcrowded hotspot areas.
Utilizing Bluetooth sets the time automatically and adds GPS coordinates to an image file. One caveat is that the Bluetooth only works on Android and is not available for iOS.
However, both mobile device OSs will have camera and remote viewfinder controls. With Remote Viewfinder the camera can set file size for stills or video, change picture modes, drive settings, AF settings, white balance and either VGA or QVGA streaming.
While directly posting to Facebook or Instagram accounts is supported by the camera, it’s just as easy to transfer between the camera and smart device with the application.
The i-Launcher software system is built into the Samsung NX1. Once the camera is plugged into a Mac or PC the i-Launcher or i-Launcher Web allows updating both camera and lens firmware, or downloading the user manual. It also allows downloading and installing Samsung Movie Converter, Samsung DNG Converter, PC Auto Backup, Power Media Player, and the SDK reference program.
A licensed copy of Adobe Lightroom is also provided, but the software should be immediately updated to add support for Samsung’s SRW RAW file format.
In the Field Testing
A unique opportunity recently arose when I was hired as the behind the scenes videographer and still photographer for the new Jean Claude Van Damme/Dave Bautista movie, “Kickboxer Vengeance.”
Having just received the Samsung NX1, at the time, provided an ideal real world testing ground. Weapons of choice included the Samsung NX1 with the Samsung NX 16-50mm f/2.0-2.8 S Series Zoom Lens with OIS and UPSM (Black) $1299 and the Samsung NX 50-150mm f/2.8 “S” Series Zoom Camera Lens with OIS (Black) $1599.99. This offered the flexibility of shooting both wide angle masters and tight portrait shots. In addition I used the Atomos Shogun external video recorder.
The concept was to shoot both 6.5K stills and 4K video, from which high-quality stills could be easily pulled from the NLE timeline.
Both director of photography Mateo Londono and the director, Dimitris Logothetis took notice of the quality of the shots and the camera. They both commented that the Samsung NX1 produced cinema quality shots that could be paired with the Red Epic being used by the production.
Shooting took place over 14 days and included: night scenes, high action martial arts fights and even press conferences.
The NX1 delivers both professional quality stills and spectacular pro-quality video.
As a still camera the 90 [email protected]/8,000th second continuous image burst at 15fps surpasses cameras three times the price. With that kind of latitude the need for neutral density filters disappears.
The SRW RAW files contain a spectacular amount of image data that can be easily and creatively adjusted in Lightroom and Photoshop, or enjoyed straight from the camera. This is where the built-in creativity of the Smart Shot, Picture Wizard and Smart Filters come into play. And the built-in Wi-Fi allows emailing an image directly from the camera or a connected smartphone.
The video performance is stunning. Having tested it in low light on a night shoot of a Hollywood movie and in the overpowering brightness of a sunset, the camera consistently outperformed expectations.
There has been a lot of attention given lately to RAW and flat S-LOG file shooting, much of which has been overblown and misleading. While the NX1 does not offer a super flat image, a properly exposed shot can be adjusted in post to do everything that a flat profile can offer. Indeed, on the set of “Kickboxer Vengeance” the consensus was that the Samsung NX1 could be used side by side with the Red Epic footage in post production. You simply can’t expect better than that for a sub $2,000 camera.
Although there are adjustments for Luminance Levels and Master Black Levels these are not designed to expand the dynamic range but rather to match other cameras in given shooting environments. The base settings in combination with the Gamma DR setting grants the widest latitude in true dynamic range.
I found it very easy to use the Touch AF for set up of focus during those hectic points in shooting behind the scenes on a stunt-filled action movie. In fact, I was even able to pull off rack focus using the Touch AF and the AF Responsiveness adjustment in the menu. The results were as smooth as using the lens control but without needing a second-person focus puller.
When I had the time, the 1280×720 viewfinder was sharp and spectacular and the manual focus switch on the lens barrel was easy to access.
Where the NX1 could be improved is stepping up to 10-bit color depth, 4:2:2 color sampling and 4k 60p frame rates. Enabling 10-bit, 4:2:2 instead of 8-bit 4:2:2 from the HDMI port would bring the ability to use an Atomos Shogun, or similar video recorder, to its fullest potential in external video recording.
Audio has always been a weak link in all mirrorless cameras but the newest firmware upgrade has taken the first step in improving the external audio capture. But still more needs to be done.
The use of H.265 is a definite long-term advantage enabling storing twice as much as H.264 while maintaining professional quality standards, and as an added bonus there is no need for ultra-fast SDHC cards, which are prone to overheating issues and failure.
For serious amateur or pro-level photography and videography, there is no other camera in this price range that delivers the bang for the buck that the Samsung NX1 camera does.
We give the Samsung NX1 Mirrorless Compact System Camera a 4.5 out of 5 Hearts rating.
Disclosure: The Samsung NX1 review sample is a manufacturer’s loan.
By Al Caudullo
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