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The debate continues. For those entering the world of digital imaging, or if you are itching to change up your gear, you have to decide: DSLR or mirrorless camera? Both have their pros and cons. Many of those already carrying DSLRs around have been attracted to the smaller size and weight of the mirrorless cameras. However, some cannot make the break from optical viewfinder to the electronic viewfinder (EVF). Also, many mirrorless cameras not only have a retro look, some of their control interfaces are retro as well. Let’s face it—there are DSLR users who appreciate the ergonomics of the beefier DSLR body and its modern, easy-to-use controls.
The Samsung NX1 is the mirrorless bridge, in terms of controls and design, between mirrorless and DSLRs. It is getting rave reviews and you know the specs already, so let’s take the NX1 out for a sailing trip and talk about what it is like to experience photography with the Samsung NX1.
The Samsung NX1 is, without looking at dimension-laden spec tables, the largest mirrorless camera on the market. This could be a negative for some, but the NX1 fills the hand with terrific ergonomics and a solid feel that speaks of quality and build. I am sure it can take a few punches while getting tossed around the cockpit of the sailboat, but this NX1 is not mine, so I treat it as if I want to return it in the same condition in which it was loaned to me.
The shape of the NX1 is unique. More reminiscent of Canon than Nikon, it has sensuous curves and no hard lines, but the shape is in no way a copy of any other camera brand on the market. It sports a fresh look. Samsung loaned us an NX1 with the optional battery grip that so many DSLR or mirrorless customers seem to enjoy using. Not every shooter needs double battery life, or a vertical shutter release and grip, but these grips definitely improve the shooting experience for some. The NX1's additional grip has ergonomics identical in size and feel to the camera's main grip and the setup just feels right for the NX1. The vertical grip's male connectors are protected, not by a plastic cap that is easy to misplace when the grip is installed, but buy a hinged plastic cap that flips neatly into a concave recess while the grip is attached. Smart.
Without the grip, the Samsung feels like a small, robust DSLR camera, but its magnesium-alloy chassis is definitely lighter than the DSLR cameras with which it competes. With the grip, the NX1 has the footprint of a pro DSLR. A representative from a major camera manufacturer told me once that 80% of those buying the optional handgrips were buying it simply for the “pro look,” not for the extra battery power or vertical release. I am sure many NX1 users will like the serious look of the camera with the optional grip attached.
There are no retro controls on the NX1. Mirrorless fully modernized.
On the left, the top dial turns to select the shooting drive mode and the small buttons atop the dial combine with the rear command dial to change metering mode, white balance, ISO, and AF mode. The dial on the right is the PASM knob with an all-auto mode, two custom modes, and a scene mode. The scene mode allows quick selection of a plethora of specialized modes including: Beauty Face, Landscape, Action Freeze, Rich Tones, Panorama, Waterfall, Multi Exposure, Silhouette, Sunset, Night, Fireworks, Light Trace, and Samsung's magical Auto Shot that can fire off a frame right when a ball makes contact with a swinging bat, and other unique features.
Also sharing the right top of the camera is an informative LCD screen. The NX1 is the only mirrorless camera today that has a top LCD screen—a feature that has been known to professional and high-end consumer DLSRs for years. And, as I have said in other reviews, I am a sucker for Timex Indiglo-style electroluminescent backlighting. The Samsung LCD on the NX1 glows a nice orange color.
Every dial and button on the Samsung is a delight to the fingers. The tiny buttons on the top of the left dial are on the small side, but the tactile feel of the Samsung's controls are spot-on. The 3" rear AMOLED screen tilts up and down and is touchscreen capable.
Samsung is likely the most "vertically integrated" camera company in the market. Many of today's top camera brands use components from other manufacturers—even direct competitors—when it comes to digital sensors, optics, batteries, and more. There are some strange bedfellows in the digital photography world. Samsung makes everything on and inside the NX1—sensor, lenses, batteries, and even the memory card that came inside our loaner camera.
Speaking of the batteries, Samsung seems to know a bit about keeping the NX1 running. I shot the camera for several days on the sailboat and took more than 600 images. I did not charge the camera, nor did I run out of battery power with the internal battery and the battery in the vertical grip.
The NX1's sensor is impressive. It packs 28MP into an APS-C-sized BSI CMOS sensor for exemplary image quality and resolution. Autofocus is snappy. Metering is spot-on. Bottom line here—the NX1 is capable of helping the photographer capture great images.
As you know, movies are part of the NX1’s powerful package. It features 24 fps 4K output or 30 fps UHD videos. Feel free to send me a 4K TV sometime, but until then, it is obvious that the Samsung NX1’s sensor and DRIMe V processor have positioned it as a serious moving image capture machine.
The electronic viewfinder felt lag free, bright, and seamlessly integrated into the system. In the bright sun, the eye sensor got tricked a few times into thinking my face wasn’t pressed against the camera, but that was a minor complaint. Even outdoors, the viewfinder was plenty bright for composing and making images.
There isn't much more to say here. Being a mirrorless camera, focus is still not on the level of the SLR, but it is as good as any mirrorless camera I have used. Bottom line, the Samsung did not produce any truly frustrating character traits while I was shooting. It did everything I asked it to do without objection.
With modern DSLR controls, the Samsung’s learning curve for experienced photographers is almost nonexistent. If you have used a PASM dial before, you wont find the NX1’s different than others. The buttons on the top left have a bit of DLSR DNA, as they are shortcuts for changing ISO, metering, white balance, and autofocus modes. The left dial also twists to select drive mode.
Front and rear command dials roll through settings and change your aperture and shutter speed on the fly. The front command dial is in the Canon-like vertical position instead of Nikon’s preferred position; horizontal in front of the shutter release. Also Canon-like, the D-pad features a control wheel for scrolling through menus and image reviews.
When it comes to touchscreen controls on the rear AMOLED, I have not used a camera with its equal. Years of experience making top-of-the-line touchscreen phones gives Samsung the know-how to make the NX1’s touchscreen interface as good as you can get in a camera system. Here, again, the learning curve for shooters, and probably for those just getting into photography, is short. Without thinking or reading a manual, I was scrolling through menus, changing settings, reviewing images with a swipe, zooming into images with pinch-zoom, and working the camera as though I had been using it for years.
Often, picking up a camera from different manufacturers and exploring the menus is a bit like learning a new dialect of your native language. The Samsung NX1’s menus and interface are as easy as any camera you will touch in the near future.
Our Samsung loaner kit came with a host of Samsung lenses. Samsung is manufacturing its own lenses after an early partnership with Schneider-Kreuznach. The glass is impressive.
16-50mm f/2-2.8 S ED OIS
The pancake, macro, and 85mm portrait lenses were all solid performers and had a good feel to them. The mere existence of the 85mm f/1.4 shows that the NX-mount system is catering to professionals, and the lens is impressive in size and weight.
50-150mm f/2.8 S ED OIS
It was the two newer Premium S lenses that made the best impressions on me. Both lenses had heft, and a quality feel. You can tell the lens designers at Samsung refined both of these lenses until the feel of the zoom and focus rings were perfectly weighted—that is to say, they are heavily damped in a way that makes you think of the classic manual lenses of yesteryear, not the frictionless plastic autofocus toys of the modern era. Of note, the zoom ring of the 50-150 has an incredibly short throw to get through the entire zoom range—a great feature for quick composing, and nice for allowing you to keep your shooting position fairly constant—no need to “ratchet” your hand to get from 50mm to 150mm. Bravo to Samsung for injecting these two lenses with high doses of quality.
The optical quality was on par with the feel of the lenses and the iFunction button allows you to make speedy adjustments to camera settings without releasing your grip on the lens barrel. Cool!
Another noticeable feature is the dust- and splash-proof construction of the S lenses. The lens rear has a rubber O-ring gasket that, when you mount or dismount the lens, creates a noticeable bit of friction while turning the lens. Instead of metal sliding over metal, or plastic wearing down plastic, you feel like you are creating some kind of waterproof seal on the NX1 when you add a Samsung lens to the front of the camera. It isn't waterproof, but it is definitely sealed. You can feel it.
The macro and S lenses feature optical image stabilization, built in. I used the full kit while sailing in good-sized chop on a small sailboat, and the OIS systems allowed me to get consistently sharp images, even as the light was fading in the evening hours.
On my voyage, I came across a historic schooner on which I used to crew. I circled her and took photos with the wide zoom and the telephoto. The S lenses cover just about every focal length you need for day-to-day shooting. Add the 85mm for portraits, the 60mm for macro work, and the 30mm pancake for street shooting, and your bag is left not wanting much in the way of other lenses. Going onboard the schooner, the NX1 and its small battery of lenses were perfect for getting detail shots and documentary-style images on board.
The NX1 can fire off frames at a blistering 15 per second. For those of you keeping score at home, that exceeds the Nikon D4S’s 11 fps and the Canon EOS-1D X’s 14 fps. Hearing the NX1 happily click through a roll of 36 exposures in less than 3 seconds is scary as one thinks about the post-processing load that you just created with your heavy shutter finger, but it sounds super cool. The smart thing that the NX1 does is this: when you fire off a burst at 15 fps, the camera puts all the images from that burst into a single “folder” so that, if you are swiping through your images from an afternoon of shooting, you don't have to look at dozens of images taken at intervals of 1/15th of a second. Thank you, Samsung!
If you have been following the NX1 since launch, you will see that Samsung has been rolling out firmware updates fairly regularly since the camera hit the B&H shelves. According to the Samsung representative, these firmware upgrades have been largely driven by customer feedback, and the company is committed to keeping the NX1 relevant for a long time to come. The next firmware update will feature variable-speed focus for video shooters.
The Bottom Line
Samsung’s biggest challenge is selling a camera with the name “Samsung” on the front. While not a young company, Samsung is definitely relatively new to the camera-manufacturing business. Being a kind of new kid on the block means that there is no multi-decade of photographic laurels to rest on. It also means that you need to be very good, right out of the gate, if you are going to survive in the current digital camera world.
To me, cameras are like pizza. Is there really a bad slice? Sure, some are way better than others, but pizza is pizza, and when you are hungry, even a frozen TV-dinner French bread slice tastes pretty darn good.
The Samsung NX1 is not a camera from a company trying to feel its way cautiously into a crowded market. It is a serious camera for serious photographers and it is a no-compromise machine with first-class optics to match.
The NX1 uniquely gives photographers the DSLR experience with all the benefits of mirrorless and without the quirky retro interfaces or diminutive size of its mirrorless competition.