4.21.2015

My short, sassy review of the Samsung NX-1. A hybrid that's good in both camps: photographs and video.


Disclaimer: In the past Samsung's P.R. agency has sent me cameras to shoot with. If I agreed to participate in their program, Imageloggers, and post weekly images on their social media site I could keep the cameras and lenses they sent along. I did so in 2013 and for part of 2014. While some of the cameras were wacky (two different white cameras with heavy "selfie" credentials) and some were half-baked (like the Galaxy NX---Android OS camera) there were two that stood out as competent shooting cameras. One was the NX 300 and the other was the NX 30. Both of these cameras could and did generate really nice files.

Last Fall I kept hearing about an amazing new Samsung camera coming down the pike. I waited and waited but it never seemed to come. I wasn't disposed to continue on with Samsung's program or to make any sort of wholesale switch to using their cameras instead of the Olympus and Nikon cameras I preferred (compared to the Samsung cameras available at the time) and so I stepped away from the program and gave away most of the cameras I'd been sent. Then Samsung launched the NX1 camera and, on paper, it looked fabulous. The two lenses that Samsung paired with the camera also looked pretty sweet. One was the 16-50mm f2.0-2.8 which had been out on the market for a while and the other was the brand new 50-150mm f2.8. If I had no other equipment investments these two lenses might be enough to entice me into the system....

When I looked at the initial specs for the camera I'll admit I had a few feelings of regret for exiting their Imagelogger program before I could actually get my hands on the camera we'd all been waiting for. It seemed to be everything I wanted and had talked about over the years. It has a big, bright, detailed EVF. The resolution is class leading for APS-C cameras. It features in-camera 4K video and it shoots fast. What's not to like?

The way I saw it this camera might be the camera of choice for one part of the market; it would be great for people who weren't invested in an interchangeable lens system yet, who also wanted their camera to be a true chameleon. A state-of-the-art still camera and a production ready video camera. But in the end the camera will probably appeal most to people who are looking for a less noisy but similarly priced competitor in the 4K video market, when compared to the Panasonic GH-4.

Having exited their program (amicably) I left a message for the folks at the P.R. firm and requested an evaluation copy be sent along. I wasn't seeing a lot of reviews and I thought I'd run the camera through its paces and see what we'd come up with. It took a long time to get a review copy. A really long time. By the time it showed up my enthusiasm had cooled a bit and large swaths of the market were already moving on to the next big thing. It's a fickle gear market, that's for sure... but I am happy I had the chance to put the camera through its paces.

I'm not going to detail the specs and stuff because you can find that at DPReview and if you have any interest in this camera I'm sure you've already read their review. I'm just going to quickly cover how I feel about the camera.

Here's the good: If this camera had come out a few years ago Samsung would have trouble ever keeping it in stock. Right now it matches most of the best points of the mature APS-C products on the market, like the Nikon D7200 and the Canon 7D2 with little concessions on each side. The image quality of the 4K video files can be quite good. As a video camera it would considered an insane bargain but for one short term glitch (which I'll cover below). The files from the NX1 are very detailed and rezzy but the trade off is a bit of dynamic range. The frame rate is terrific but the focusing acquisition in low light levels leaves a bit to be desired (by comparison). The camera handles well and feels comfortable and the battery life is good.  The image quality is very good and while the color palette is different from the Canon and Nikon cameras I doubt that any of them is a reference standard for true color. I actually appreciate having some choices in color response.

The bottom line is that if you are in the market for an APS-C format camera that's a great all around photographic performer and you like using the raw format for shooting stills, and you go with the two, fast, f2.8 zooms you'll most likely be just as happy with this camera as you would be with the competitors from Canon and Nikon. If you are keenly interested in video you'll be even happier. The 4K video is really very good and relatively noise free up to 1600 ISO. It's a fair and even alternative for many uses that currently fall to the GH4 from Panasonic.

But here's the bad: My first observation, and it's one area in which I strongly disagree with the reviewers at DPReview.com is about the EVF. While I love the idea of EVFs and I enjoy working with good examples the NX-1 I've been loaned isn't seamless. It jutters and jitters a bit, visibly, when I pan it. And I'm not panning like a  centrifuge, just a nice, easy pan.  I thought I might be having a too critical moment so I grabbed the EM5.2 out of the bag and did the same pan with the same equivalent focal length and confirmed that the EVF on the Olympus is  smoother and less plagued by refresh lag than the NX-1 when panned in the same fashion.  The EVF on the NX1 is also darker by default but can be adjusted. When I mentioned this to the folks at Samsung they were concerned since they hadn't had the same complaints from any other reviewer. I'm presuming that the camera I had in my hands has an earlier version of the firmware and that this has been remedied. But the careful buyer might still check.

Samsung seems to be following a good trend in that the firmware fixes are coming fast and furious for this new camera. It's always nice to see new features added and performance improved on a camera you already own!

To put it into perspective the EVF, as it is now, is fine for most of what I would use the camera for. That's video. No one does fast pans in video. More like slooooow pans. In all other regards the EVF image is quite good. I just have to be honest and say "ouch. let's not too pan fast.

(edit: After some feedback from Samsung I re-tested the EVF. As shutter speeds go higher the effect subsides and lag becomes almost invisible. The critical juncture seemed to be at 1/125th of a second. To put it all into context most fast panning will be done trying to capture sports and that will be done at shutter speeds of 1/500th and higher where this camera performs as well as any EVF camera on the market. At very low shutter speeds I stand by my original assessment. ) 

On video: Samsung is like that guy who comes to the party and gets just about everything right but ends up accidentally sticking his hand in the punch bowl and then wiping his hand off on the white tablecloth. The guy who gets the up to the podium, delivers a great and riveting speech and then knocks over the microphone and trips over the cord. For some reason they've always made decisions that end up compromising the products that should have done well. To my mind having an optional EVF would have made the NX300 a wonderful and very cult-y camera. With  the stinky baby diaper hold rear screen only it becomes just another good performing snapshot camera. The Galaxy NX was also an interesting product and might have succeeded if not for the 28 second start up time and the ever intrusive nature of the Android OS. It was a camera for God's sake, not a downmarket laptop... But the screen on the back with a hood to block sun would have been a videographer's dream if that camera had done video like the NX1 does....

And it looks like they've done it again. They created a camera that's competitive with the big guys in the market for almost all kinds of still imaging. They came out with two really great lenses to hang on the front of it. The brought out a sensor that has the resolution, dynamic range and the high ISO performance people want. It even has 4K video that can be saved in camera. On memory cards.  If we stop there we'd all love the camera. Really good 4K video and great still image quality? We can overlook a little bit of low light focus anxiety.  After all, the Nikon D600 and D610 were no great shakes when the light got low. We might  be able to overlook the EVF's problems (in my sole experience) with fast pans.

But Samsung didn't stop there. They just couldn't help themselves. They seemingly just had to stick that crazy hand in the punch bowl. They decided that instead of suggesting that potential 4K users buy good, fast memory cards they chose to use a brand new video file standard called H.265. The advantage of this "codec" is that it creates really small, very compressed video files that fit onto SD memory cards. You could write lots and lots of minutes of good 4K video on smaller, slower and crappier cards. People could use cheaper, older SD cards --- and that would be good?

(Edit: One of my video buddies took me to task for being unfair to the NX-1 and Samsung's choice to use the new H.265 codec. He pointed out that the power users in video are now looking for cameras which can output a clean (no words on screen) and relatively uncompressed (much bigger) file over HDMI. That makes the in camera codec more or less meaningless to the group that will use this camera for many and more complex projects. He also pointed out that Samsung could have (and perhaps may in the future) used the new codec in a different ways, leaving the file size on card the same as the competition but doubling the quality of the footage. Apparently there are choices within the codec. Okay. So, with an "inexpensive" Atomos Digital recorder one could pull uncompressed video out of the camera that should be amazingly good. That's a plus, not a negative...)

But there's no free lunch. If you use a new compression scheme to write tiny files to the camera's card at some point the files have to be converted/expanded to something else in order to be edited in one of the two 800 pound gorilla editing programs, Adobe Premiere and Apple's Final Cut Pro X. Both of those programs run optimally with a codec called ProRes. It's almost an industry standard. But converting those H.265 files requires a few things that those programs don't provide. The first is a conversion or transcoding application. The second is a super fast, insanely powerful computer with which to crunch lots and lots of data during the conversions.

Remember those little foam dinosaurs that came in little capsules and the advertising copy that accompanied them which claimed that if you soaked them in water they would magically grow to 100X their size? Well the Samsung 4K, H.265 files do just that when you convert them into something you can edit with like ProRes. They seem to grow to about 10 times their original size.

All of a sudden you've got about three times more storage needs than if you'd have shot the same 4K files on a Panasonic GH4 camera with it's nice and easily editable 4K files. But the files don't just take up space--it takes lots of time to do the conversion. Running our liquid Nitrogen cooled Cray CS Cluster Super Computer with 80 processor nodes the conversion time was still daunting. (Sheer hyperbole! It's not really that bad...). To be fair once you convert H.264 files to ProRes they too vastly increase in size...

This critique is the hit a company takes when they decide to be the first adopter of new technology or new standards. I'm sure, in a year, lots of other makers will offer cameras with the choice of H.265 because the quality can be stunning or the space savings effective (but not both at the same time) and apps will be optimized for the workflow required. But right now it's an issue for anyone who has cobbled together a good workflow with existing video file types. And according to my very professional and hardworking video expert many clients are now asking for shooters to use cameras that output ProRes directly! But I think that's a bit crazy too.

Wrap up. The NX1 can be very good. Many who started with other brands will find the human/machine interface a little eccentric but we can chalk that up to familiarity versus change. I can tell you that I mastered the NX1 menus about ten times faster than the Sanskrit Encyclopedia that is the Olympus OMD menu system... There are some little operational glitches but most can be cleaned up with future firmware updates. If you are starting from scratch and have no preconceptions about how cameras should handle or how menus should work this is a good, feature rich camera to look at.

If you are really into video and lust after a cost effective 4K tool with a bigger sensor than the one in the well regarded GH4 this is also a good video camera for the money. The same operational issues plague it as plague Nikon and Canon and most other DSLRs that are pressed into service as video cameras; to wit, the menu driven control functions like microphone levels instead of external dials---so we can't be too critical. The NX1 trumps Nikon by having focus peaking in the system and trumps both Nikon and Canon by offering very pretty 4K files right out of the camera.

On the dreaded forae the most often dredged up stick against the NX1 is the lack of lenses available natively for the camera. I think that's a red herring for most people, including working professionals because most will be very well served by the two professional quality zooms for 90% of their work, and the holes in the system can be plugged by using third party lenses or lenses from other systems that are adapted with lens adapters. Again, a key advantage of most of the mirrorless systems.

If I could change one thing on the camera what would that be? I would ask the engineers at Samsung to offer a choice of both H.264 and H.265 codecs in video. That way people who need to move quickly could use the camera in their current workflows. This would let the user decide where to place the efficiency versus storage fulcrum. And seriously, UHS-3 cards are already dirt cheap.

The Bottom Line: Would I buy one?

Let me hedge a bit here. I might buy one. If I did it would be solely for the video capability of the camera. The features of the still side of the camera are ones that don't really interest me or which I have covered well enough by other systems. I don't care at all about NFC since I'll probably never buy coffee at Starbucks with my camera. I don't care about wi-fi as I'm probably not going to share unedited corporate video over the airwaves. I don't care much at all about fast frame rates or "the world's fastest autofocus." I'd buy one to get around the few caveats I have about the GH4. The Panasonic is a beautiful and useful camera but one that has a fairly high noise floor and which shows noise in shadows from ISO 400 onward. The NX-1 yields a less noisy file that still looks good, sharp and detailed. The camera offers most of the same video usability features as the GH4, including: headphone jack, external mic capability, focus peaking and various set up controls.

I figure that adding a body only and a Nikon lens adapter gets me into a 4K video camera with a lot of capabilities for a fairly low price along with the ability to use an endless supply of manual focus lenses with hard focus stops and physical aperture settings. The bigger sensor and the lower ISO noise can be real benefits and the camera is rugged and seems solid. You could produce good video with this set up. If you want to see a creative piece done with one go here: https://vimeo.com/121238971

With a few more firmware upgrades and a bit of time to let body only prices drop we might just have a killer video production tool on our hands for around $1300 bucks. A bit more than half the price of just the digital recorder you'll need to get actual 4K video out of a Sony A7s..... interesting value proposition, yes?

Oooh. Nikon's 50mm f1:1.2 lens on the front. Lots of big, soft directional lights, acres of detail. I'm guessing that's what Samsung had in mind from the beginning.  Hmmm.

Test the GH4 and the NX1 side by side and it really becomes more about preferences than superiority of one over the other. It's an interesting niche for both of these cameras because it's a clear indictment of Canon and Nikon's foot dragging where performance in video is concerned.

I've finished with my review and I've boxed up the camera to send it back. Just waiting for the Fedex.


5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Does anyone in the U.S. actually buy Samsung cameras? My take is that they only sell in the east.
I know a lot of people who own their phones but no one who has one of their cameras.

Goff said...

Dear Kirk

I wonder whether you have considered the new Canon XC10 for your mix of video and still.
Your views on it would help me make up my mind about buying one for my Cin├ęcollage projects.

Regards, Goff

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Anon.. I am certain that many people in the U.S. buy Samsung cameras. I don't have numbers but they probably outsell Panasonic and Olympus combined.

Hi Goff, I'm not so keen on the Canon camera. I think it's too expensive compared to something like the Panasonic FZ1000 and I think the slow lens permanently attached disqualifies it from serious consideration. An f5.6 at the long end with a smaller sensor means no fun with depth of field.

If you are indifferent to 4K my choices would be along the lines of the Sony RX10 with the updated codec or the z1000. Both are fun to shoot and have faster optics for the same size sensor. Both are less than half the price of the Canon.

Kirk Tuck said...

An update for Anonymous. According to Samsung's PR people they are the second best selling CSC camera line in the U.S. and Globally just behind Sony.

Kirk Tuck said...
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