Why Samsung’s NX1 doesn’t deserve to disappear

High ISO due to poor light and a fast-moving subject that can confuse AF is no problem for the NX1. It's a camera that outperforms many of its rivals but it may be close to extinction

If the stories all over the internet are true, it seems Samsung is exiting loads of different markets across Europe with its cameras. The frankly excellent NX1 is to be discontinued in Europe, Hong Kong and Australia, and it seems the Korean giant may be closing or selling its camera division completely. If we lose the technological innovation that Samsung showed in its flagship NX1, then photography will be all the poorer for it.

While the world – well, Europe actually – seems to be going mad for high-end CSC cameras, the NX1 has just never been that popular. Fuji’s X-series is going great guns, as is the Olympus OM-D series and Panasonic G range while Sony’s A7 range are coming out with more lenses and more innovation all the time – both of those fuelled by popularity with video users. Even Leica is now entering the market with some great innovations on its new SL. Especially the dubious innovation of cracking the £8000 barrier for a camera and standard zoom. But somehow, the Samsung NX1 has just not been that popular.

NX1

Perhaps it’s because it isn’t a hispster-styled retro machine, or Samsung didn’t spend as much marketing it as their rivals. Or maybe there’s not a lot of snob value in having a Samsung logo on your camera strap – but in the same way, neither is there for Panasonic or Sony really. Even though the camera isn’t madly expensive, perhaps it was held back by the real cost of entering a new system, as the reason lots of pro, semi-pro of keen enthusiasts people didn’t rush out and buy was that they certainly won’t already own a bagful of Samsung lenses like they might with Canon or Nikon which they have used for years. Samsung just hasn’t been on the radar of most keen photographers, and that takes a lot of turning round.

It certainly wasn’t the camera itself or the two sublime pro lenses that were launched with it, like the 50-150mm F2.8 telephoto zoom and 16-5mm f2-2.8 standard zoom. Yes, that’s f2 at 16mm. Plus the blazing 15fps frame rate, more than 200 AF points all across the frame, 4K video and full HD video at 50 or 60fps, rugged body, 28MP backlit sensor, fantastic viewfinder and fast AF that actually works. Even a battery grip for more power and more comfortable vertical shooting was available.

CSC cameras have been great for many things, apart from the occasional dodgy user experience with menus and buttons. But the real glitch has been dreadful autofocus that’s pretty much useless for sport, wildlife or anything that moves with any speed. The NX1 changed all that, and so far is the only camera that I’d happily use to shoot sport – especially given the madly fast 15fp frame rate. And unlike some CSCs, the EVF doesn’t black out and show you a review image a few seconds into a burst – making the high burst rate a bit of marketing benefit rather than real use. The NX1 works amazingly well and gives great image quality, even at high ISO. And once you get into shooting 15fps sequences, which allow you use it as a sequence or pick the decisive moment, you’ll be sold!

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The camera is a winner – in everything but sales. After all, I love the camera but didn’t rush out to buy one as I’m so invested in Nikon, Phase One, Leica M and now Sony for video and stills. And the NX1 wasn’t perfect. I figured that a NX1 mark II – or NX2 maybe – would have these glitches ironed out, there would be more pro lenses available and that would be the camera to buy to replace DSLR for some uses. But it now seems it may be too late and an NX2 may never appear, which is sad.

Mixed and low-brightness indoor light is tricky but the NX1 nailed it, even on J-Peg
Mixed and low-brightness indoor light is tricky but the NX1 nailed it, even on J-Peg

One thing that Samsung didn’t do was discount the camera and lenses heavily, unlike some of the volume market leaders. Have you checked out the price of a still-current X-Pro1 and its original trio of lenses now compared to their launch price? Or the Sony A7R? You’re in for a shock. I know, as I own or have owned both. If Samsung’s camera division is for sale, at least it should mean some mega deals on the NX1 and lenses should be coming our way soon. But in some ways, you’ll be investing in a defunct system so you should expect a huge discount to go with your excellent kit that should last for years.

But I really do hope this isn’t the end for the Samsung innovation and one of the other photo giants buys it and learns from it – maybe launching new versions under their own name like Sony did with Minolta at first. Maybe one of the camera companies with little experience in what elctronics firms bring – such as Wifi, Because I am certainly still waiting for the perfect CSC, and the NX1 shows clear indications of many of the things it should have.

So how come I rate the NX1 so highly? Well, a year ago I was twice lent pre-production NX1s by Samsung, plus the pro lenses and some other existing lenses that fit, to test for a few weeks at a time. After testing it and getting used to it, I shot some skaters with it at a launch for Jessops dealers. Then I took a second one to France to shoot a real professional job on it for one of my editorial clients. In the spirit of complete transparency, I was paid by a photo magazine Photo Professional, to write a short review of the camera as I often do for them, and was also interviewed by Samsung for an advertisement feature in that magazine. This is what I said at the time. Hope it makes interesting reading.

Sport is not the natural home for CSC cameras but the NX1 handles it well
Sport is not the natural home for CSC cameras but the NX1 handles it well

Samsung Power!

If you want to give a camera with professional aspirations a thorough workout you don’t put it on a test bench to see how it fares under laboratory conditions. No working photographer operates under clinical conditions such as this: rather you need it to get out there and into genuine field conditions, and this is where you’ll discover how capable a piece of kit is, and whether it can genuinely cope with the white hot heat of a full-on professional assignment.

So I was handed the NX1 and the 50-150mm zoom, with a mission to attend the Lille Supercross event in France. On the bill in this indoor football stadium were fast moving, erratic off-road bikes, competing under very low light levels. Over two nights there were four races of up to ten minutes each, which equated to not a huge amount of actual shooting time. It meant I had to be able to rely on the NX1 to make sure I came back with the pictures I needed, and there would be no second chances should things go wrong. (NB. I also used a new Canon EOS 7D MkII at the event, to give a very real and direct comparison between CSC and DSLR speed, AF and image quality plus handling, of course. You can read my review of that camera here.)

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I really didn’t take a lot of notice when I heard that Samsung had launched a new CSC since I don’t use cameras of this type a lot in my professional work. However, when I looked a little closer it did look interesting: The 28 MP sensor, the fast AF and the 15fps shooting speed. On the face of it the camera looked ideal for sport and action, and the backlit APS-C size sensor sounded like it would handle noise well, and give extra reach for sports shots.

On taking delivery of the camera I was impressed still further, both by the build quality of the camera and lens and by the fully loaded feature set. It was far more pro-level than I thought it would be. Lots of metal, knurled aluminium knobs: proper bit of kit. It’s also got loads of features that real pro photographers use, plus other nice Samsung-style features, such as WiFi control and a tiltable touchscreen. In terms of the EVF I was initially a little sceptical since, in my experience, these have never been ideal for sports photographers, but in fact it was far better than I thought it would be: simply the best EVF I’ve ever used, and it proved to be very usable in a genuine sporting situation.

So much for impressions, but how did the shoot itself go? One of the key things I was concerned about was the quality of the AF, crucial of course to sports photographers covering fast moving action, and the NX1 didn’t disappoint. The AF was very good and it tracked very well. Once it locked on to the subject it kept up with it. Big plus! I never use AF auto tracking since, in my opinion, it can get too easily confused, so I just selected a single AF point via the touchscreen and went with that. Overall it was very, very good.

Auto exposure modes were useful in fast-changing light such as the event's opening ceremonies
Auto exposure modes were useful in fast-changing light such as the event’s opening ceremonies

On the face of it, the 15fps shooting speed is one of the features that will appeal the most to those shooting sport and action. I usually shoot at 11fps using my Nikon D4S, so the extra frames I was able to shoot were brilliant for things such as race starts, when lots tends to happen. And freestyler can be caught at the peak of their tricks by the fast frame rate, and you pick the shots you want. In fact, it’s so easy to get hooked on sequences! Like these!

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Another big plus point was that, due to the low light levels, I needed to up the ISO rating on the camera, and this again was a big test for any CSC with a smaller APS-C size sensor. I ended up shooting at ISO 1600-3200 all night and the results were very good. As the camera was so new there was no Raw converter available just now, so I shot JPEGs set to normal noise reduction and the images were very clean, comparable to crop-sensor DSLRs for sure. At low ISO settings, of course, the results were cleaner still. 

VERDICT

The Samsung NX1 is not only the first CSC camera I would seriously consider using for a paying sports job, I actually used it successfully and the shots were used internationally as well as for my UK clients – a photo magazine and a motorcycle magazine in this case. The AF is fast, the image quality is very good, I loved the EVF and that super fast frame rate is amazing, Definitely a camera with professional aspirations, and when more pro-spec lenses become available it will be even more of a tempting proposition.

A little bit of flare from the inexpensive 20mm lens doesn't ruin this shot, but it's something to watch for
A little bit of flare from the inexpensive 20mm lens doesn’t ruin this shot, but it’s something to watch for

 

An interview about Samsung’s NX1

I’m quizzed by a Samsung for an advertising feature about using the NX1 for action sports. If you can’t tell, I’m very impressed. 

What were your initial thoughts about the cameras and the 50-150mm lens?  When I was announced I ignored it as CSC cameras are of little use in my main work. But on closer inspection, the spec is impressive, especially 28MP and a APS-C sensor with fast AF and 15fps. And so many sensors covering so much of the frame. Seemed useable for sport and action, and the backlit sensor sounded like it would handle noise well. But EVFs have never worked for sport so I was sceptical but it was far better than I thought… best EVF I’ve ever used and actually useable for real sport.

The telephoto zoom gives great results, even from the grandstands
The telephoto zoom gives great results, even from the grandstands

The telephoto zoom lens is ideal, well built with a great range and constant f/2.8 aperture. Equivalent to 80-240mm at constant f/2.8 in a relatively small package is amazing. Build quality of both is very good, and far more pro-level than I thought it would be. Lots of metal, knurled aluminium knobs.. proper bit of kit. But it’s actually not that much smaller and lighter than a DSLR really. A bit, but not tiny like an OM-D.

It’s the first CSC camera I would seriously consider using for a paying sports job as the AF is fast, image quality very good, EVF is good, super fast frame rate and more. It needs the battery grip to be more comfortable to use in portrait mode and to give it more battery power. And twin card slots are needed for a pro camera too, ideally.

Were they perhaps better than you might have expected from a manufacturer with a strong consumer base, such as Samsung? Loads better. Well built, loads of features that real pro photographers use. Plus other nice Samsung style features like wifi control and tiltable, touchscreen that the more you use it, the better and more natural it becomes. Just because old DSLRs haven’t had these features, we’re used to working without them but they are nice to have.

How straightforward was the camera to use? Easy to use, as it almost offers two types of control. The first is old fashioned turn a knob or push a button/ turn a knob like most pro cameras. But you can also access stuff via touchscreen which is a new thing for most pros but probably easier for anyone coming up from a smartphone. I didn’t have a manual and worked it all out!

The NX1 didn't take long to get used, meaning I was ready for unexpected shots like this rider crashing
The NX1 didn’t take long to get used, meaning I was ready for unexpected shots like this rider crashing

How did it work at the events used it at? I shot an indoor motocross inside the Lille football stadium in France. Fast moving, erratic off-road bikes with very low light levels. There are four races of up to 10 minutes each over two nights, so not a lot of actual shooting time so you have to get it right. There was also freestyle demos – big jumps where the riders do tricks. They turned the lights down very low for more amosphere!

I also shot some skateboards doing tricks in a dark conference room lit with just four constant lights. The high frame rate and AF worked very well. Surprisingly well!

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How did the AF work at the racing event: it looks as though it kept up well? AF was very good and tracked very well. Once it locked on to the subject it kept up with it. Big plus! Only gripe was that sometimes it took a fraction of a second to lock on to the subject, longer than a pro DSLR like a Nikon D4S for example. But once it locked on, it tracked well. I didn’t trust AF auto tracking as it was too easily confused. Just selected a single AF point via touchscreen and went with that. Very, very good.

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One of the key features of the new camera is its 15fps capability: how did you find this, and is this kind of shooting speed useful to you as a sports photographer? It was fantastic and I used it all the time. When shooting sequences of the freestylers, with a new rider jumping every 7 seconds or so, the buffer wouldn’t keep up so I had to miss every other rider.

What about the overall feature set of the camera: did it look quite good for a camera at this price point? (£1200 body only at the moment) It’s a pro or semi-pro build camera with amazing features so the price is very competitive. A lot less than a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with similar results. And loads more features like 4K video, 15fps, touchscreen that tilts, wifi. Good value for sure, and lighter than a DSLR.

Overall, what was your opinion of the files that the camera produced? Very good, clean files useable in print for magazines at most ISO settings. Good colours, good auto white balance, lots of detail thanks to 28MP, very good. Not as good at high ISO as full frame DSLRs but then again it wouldn’t be. But better high ISO performance than any other CSC I’ve used so far. Noise reduction software did remove more noise but at the expense of detail. But this was on jpeg so it so to be expected. On raw it should be much better. 

What did you think about the build quality of the camera? Very good, solid and professional, Especially the pro lenses. But the 20mm pancake lens was plasticky and flared as it had no lens hood. The body and 50-150 lens felt like true pro bits of kit though. Lots of fellow pro photographers checked it out as it’s a smaller and lighter combo than a DSLR with a big zoom.

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Is this in any way a camera that might have some professional aspirations, assuming that Samsung adds to the system and provides more lenses? Definitely. Seems like a glimpse into the future as the AF is so good, it’s fast, well built, good price, great files. Needs twin card slots and a WAY bigger buffer. You can’t give a camera 15fps then when you shoot raw and j-Peg at 15fps it locks up after just a couple of seconds or so. And Samsung needs more pro lenses, of course.