“The wolf on the hill is not as hungry as the wolf climbing the hill.” This was the memorable warning issued to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron, and it nicely encapsulates the position Samsung finds itself in as it tries to scale the summit of the camera market.
The NX1 is a sign of just how ravenous Samsung is for the prosumer and professional camera dollar. But the climb is steep, and other wolves have been satisfying themselves at the top for decades. Together with our frequent co-tester, the New Jersey-based photographer and director David Patiño, we put the NX1 and the new 50-150mm f/2.8 S ED OIS lens to the test to see how far Samsung has come.
The mirrorless NX1 is built around a new 28-megapixel backside-illuminated (BSI), APS-C-sized CMOS image sensor (23.5 x 15.7mm). It’s a sensor of Samsung’s own design and is the first of its size to feature backside illumination. While it offers roughly eight million more pixels than the Samsung’s previous mirrorless flagship, the NX30, the photo diodes are the same size—a space-saving consequence of the BSI sensor. This endows the NX1 with better low-light performance, giving the camera a native sensitivity range of ISO 100–25,600.
The spec sheet on the NX1 is too voluminous to list here, but there are two highlights that are worth mentioning. The first is the autofocus system and continuous shooting mode. The camera’s NX AF System III boasts 205 phase-detection points with 153 cross-type sensor points, a one-two punch that enables the NX1 to keep focus on moving objects even when the camera is cranking away at an eye-popping 15 frames per second. The phase detection system is also at work during video recording, making it easier to keep moving subjects in focus.
Speaking of video, the other highlight is the NX1’s 4K video capture. Alongside Panasonic’s GH4, it’s one of the few interchangeable lens cameras capable of recording 4K (4096x2160p) directly to an SD card. Unlike the GH4, however, the NX1 uses the new, more efficient HEVC (or H.265) compression codec, allowing you to store more footage on your memory card than you would with H.264. Using HEVC also lets you use slower memory cards when recording: We used cards as slow as Class 6 for 4K footage at 24 fps. It’s an impressive feat, but using slower cards negates the advantage of the NX1’s blazing burst mode, so it’s not without a trade-off.
In addition to “cinema” 4K, you’ll have the option of UHD (3840x2160p) recording at 30 fps and 1920×1080 at both 60 and 30 fps—all of which also use HEVC compression. You can, however, output an uncompressed 4K or HD signal to an external recorder via HDMI. There are mic and headphone inputs for audio recording and monitoring.
From the weather-sealed construction to the curved handgrip and abundance of well-placed dials, the NX1 feels every bit the advanced camera. There’s just one exception: the weight. Even with the sizeable 50–150mm f/2.8 lens attached, the NX1 is a featherweight, lighter than the GH4 and significantly lighter than high-end APS-C DSLRs, such as Canon’s EOS 7D Mark II.
Building on the body design of the NX30, the NX1 adds a monochrome LCD at the top of the camera for displaying camera settings. Its 3-inch AMOLED touch screen display can be tilted up 90 degrees or down 45 degrees, giving you several viewing options for framing and composing. It’s crisp and viewable at all angles, even under harsh sun. Unlike the NX30, however, the display isn’t articulating. Neither is the electronic viewfinder, which on the NX30 you could pull out of the camera and tilt up to an 80-degree angle.
We really only had one quibble with the design choice and that’s the placement of the video record button. We would frequently slide a finger down from the shutter button hoping to trigger video recording but would hit the exposure compensation button instead. Reversing the position of those would feel more natural.
Patiño brought the camera to a corporate portrait session and performed some in-studio tests with us. We also tested the NX1’s video features in tandem with Ashley Haglund, a filmmaker and owner of the production company Generic Brand Human, where the NX1 was used in a video shoot of a seminar, recording 4K and 1080p footage alongside a pair of Canon 5D Mark IIIs. In both scenarios, the NX1 was able mostly to hold its own.
The NX1 performed well in low-light still shooting. Patiño produced useable images at ISO 6400. We would use ISO 12,800 sparingly, and found noise throughout images when we reached the max ISO of 25600.
“It produces a nice, mellow image,” Patiño says, adding that he was very pleased with the skin tones and the details he was able to capture with the 28-megapixel sensor while shooting portraits.
However, looking at a 100-percent crop of one of his subject’s blue jacket, we noticed some serious chromatic aberration down the edge of his arm. We set up a new session with a new model and a different colored shirt and found the same results. Scanning through our other images, it wasn’t a persistent issue and running the RAW files through Adobe Camera RAW with “Remove Chromatic Aberration” selected did significantly alleviate the issue. Nonetheless, having to combat chromatic aberration on a regular basis definitely gave Patiño pause. We did not have an opportunity to test Samsung’s new 16-50mm S lens, which you can purchase bundled with the NX1, but with the 50-100mm S lens it was definitely apparent.
Both Haglund and Patiño told us that the HD video quality on the NX1 proved excellent, especially in low light where the backside illuminated CMOS sensor showed its merit. Haglund was also able to use the footage she shot with the NX1 right alongside Canon EOS 5D Mark III clips. It’s not quite ready to sideline higher-end video cameras, however. It outputs an 8-bit 4:2:0 file vs. the 10-bit 4:2:2 file you produce on the GH4. There’s no flat or color-gradeable video profile, either, so your postprocessing options are limited. You can, however, adjust ISO during video recording and we found the camera held up well to ISO 1600.
Thanks to its HEVC compression, Haglund stored 120 minutes of 4K footage to a 64GB SDXC card, and as we mentioned earlier, even Class 6 cards were able to record 4K video. Things hit the skids after we imported these video files onto our Mac. Since HEVC compression is so new, few video programs support it yet. Samsung bundles a converter that transcodes the files to H.264, but the process was slow and laborious. We turned to DVDFab to view the HEVC files on our Mac and a pair of transcoders (HandBrake and Wondershare) to convert these files to H.264 and ProRes, respectively. They proved faster than Samsung’s utility, but that’s not saying much.
There’s no question that HEVC will eventually replace AVC (H.264) as the compression codec of choice for camera vendors for saving video to a memory card. But with the NX1, you’ll be paying the price of the early adopter, waiting for the rest of the imaging eco-system to catch up.
Shooting with the NX1 is very intuitive. Samsung knows how to build a great user interface and it shows on this camera, with a menu and touch screen integration that is second to none.
The NX1 is also crazy fast, capable of continuous shooting at 15 fps for up to 70 frames (RAW, JPEG or RAW+JPEG), besting both Canon’s top shelf EOS-1D X and Nikon’s D4 in the speed department, at less than half of either’s asking price. Tracking AF also did a nice job keeping moving subjects (in our case a plunging basketball) in focus. Very impressive.
We were also impressed with touch focusing, which we used when recording a school concert to thread between heads in the foreground to focus on singing subjects in the background. Despite the array of AF sensors, the NX1 did hunt for focus a fair amount in both still and video modes in low light, but when shooting video in bright light, focusing was very consistent.
The NX1’s battery is CIPA-rated for 500 shots. Unfortunately, if you opt for a body-only package, the NX1 will ship with a USB charger that recharges the battery in the camera. We’ve seen external charger options online and Samsung will bundle a battery grip and external charger in a kit with its 16-50mm S lens, but being locked into in-camera charging out of the box is a big obstacle if you’re shooting for prolonged periods.
The NX1 is an impressive camera and a testament to Samsung’s ambitions to feast with the big dogs near the top of the camera market. In some cases, like the use of HEVC and ultra-fast shooting, it’s well ahead of its time (though not always in a good way). Its design, user interface, feature set and image quality make it extremely attractive. While it may not have a commanding lead over its mirrorless rivals in all areas, it’s faster, lighter and delivers image quality that’s on par, if not superior, to what its competitors offer. For mirrorless camera shoppers, the NX1 is extremely compelling.
As it scales the mountain, there are still areas where Samsung needs to secure its footing. Lens selection tops the list. As of this writing, there are just two premium S series lenses available, the designation Samsung bestows on its highest-end, weather-sealed glass. There are a respectable 16 NX lenses available in total, but third party options for the Samsung lens mount are nowhere near as numerous as options for other mirrorless and APS-C systems from the company’s competitors.
This wolf may not be at the summit quite yet, but its belly is growling.
PROS: Blazing shot-to-shot speed; responsive touch screen; 4K video recording to card; intuitive menu system; solid low-light performance for stills and video.
CONS: Chromatic aberration using 50-150mm lens; working with HEVC files is difficult; body-only kit does not ship with external battery charger.