On the weekend of November 29/30th (2014), Samsung’s South African department held their Cape Town ‘DITCHtheDSLR‘ events, as they’d done at the Photo & Film Expo in Johannesburg and are doing again in Durban on the 13th of December.
We arrived the morning of the 29th a little after 8AM in the mall’s parking lot, the lights inside the place off, an automatic rifle-armed security guard patrolling to and fro in front of the entrance we’d stopped at – guarding the people exchanging the money in the parking ticketing machine. My brother-in-law and I thought the entire mall was still closed until half an hour later when we saw some people coming and going through the doors.
Another fifteen minutes later and we finally found the Samsung booth at the other end of the mall. They directed us outside to where people were queuing, where it became apparent we were already much too late.
It didn’t really matter that we’d wasted so much time on the wrong side of the mall’s parking lot and inside the mall itself; the queue had filled up to its 75 eligible (there were some people in that queue who were disqualified for being silly) participants for the day by something around 4am already.
We left a while later and came back around 8pm to around 25-30 or so people already queuing again. I was going to join my family for supper inside before coming to camp out for the night, but ended up doing so immediately after popping in for some quick snack-shopping at one of the grocery chains inside.
As the people that morning had explained the parking lot was actually quite safe to camp out in like this throughout the night. It turned out the mall had security patrolling the lot throughout the night anyway and, for the event, had arranged an extra detail to watch over ‘early’ attendees as well. The earliest this time having begun their watch from shortly after the first day’s event ended.
I sat around position 30 with very pleasant conversation for the evening, everyone around us likewise chatting up a storm, some bringing wine and beers, others large, thick sleeping pads, but most everyone with a way to entertain themselves. I wasn’t aware queuing of this sort was a ‘thing’ in South Africa until I took part in this one, but you could tell there were some experienced folk there.
3 hours of poor sleep and wind-chill later we finally got some bird-song and sunlight, and a few progressively shorter seeming hours later we were being called in in groups of 20 for the long-awaited swaps.
It didn’t occur to me at the time I could’ve been taking photos of the swap itself on my Canon 500D as the queue inside was progressing along, or at least of the stand Samsung had set up, but some hours later I was part-way home hot, tired, remarkably free of soreness and already happy with the exchange.
So on to the Samsung NX30 and what it’s offering me and taking away photographically compared to the Canon 500D I’d been using for 4 years up till now, beginning with the most immediate pros/cons listing. Items marked with * are specific points talked about later.
- ISO3200 performs as well as/better than the 500D’s ISO400 did
- ISO400> has drastically-better recoverable shadows than the 500D
- Ability to set a minimum shutter speed directly, automatically based on focal length or off
- Ability to set a maximum ISO for the camera to use, up to 3200, although unlike on the 500D I’d be entirely happy to use 3200 on this camera
- Wifi shooting*
- A surprisingly-intuitive and ‘vast’ autofocus system when choosing a specific area*
- Extendable, tiltable EVF with most of the niceties that come with it, namely focus peaking, exposure zebras, live histogram, manual-focus assist*
- Tilty-flippy touch-screen with fantastic visibility in direct sunlight
- Dedicated ‘bracketed shots’ position on a dedicated drive mode dial
- Built-in configurable intervalometer
- Lens selection which is relatively small, lightweight, well-performing and inexpensive*
- No customizable ‘quick menu’ ala Canon system*
- Flash menus aren’t as easily accessible as they could be*
- No back-button focus*
- No manual focus while lens is in AF mode*
Now, it’s worth noting I didn’t actually intend on keeping this camera. While I did intend on ditching the DSLR for a mirrorless camera, I was originally planning to go for a Fujifilm X-E1 instead and to get into the Fuji system. While this is something I’d still like to do for various reasons, among them being the image quality the X-Trans sensors provide, I’m actually quite happy with what this Samsung camera’s providing right now already and think this camera would be a better one to have my mom use if and when she wants to than the Fujis would be.
That said, going through the list of pros and cons, to start off with there’s the difference in ISO performance. If you head over to DXOMark you’ll see something pretty interesting here regarding dynamic range for the NX30 compred to the 500D; namely, their tests put the NX30 at only marginally better-performing than the 500D at ISOs 100 and 200, meeting at 400 and becoming worse below that.
So far, I’ve seen drastically-better results out of the camera all the way to ISO6400. On either camera, ISO12800 is pushing it and I wouldn’t necessarily want to use it on either, but the NX30 still wins out here and continues to do so at its ISO25600 setting (which the 500D can do via Magic Lantern).
In terms of colour rendition, to my eye, there’s no contest. I haven’t seen performance like this out of any of Canon’s crop cameras’ raws I’ve ever downloaded to play with, only from their full-frame bodies; specifically the 5D Mk II/III, 6D, 1Ds Mk III or 1D X but not below these.
Combined with the ability to pull what I consider an incredible amount from the shadows while still getting something I’d be happy to use, these are three qualities which are quite important to me for the kind of photos I like and want to take; landscapes, architecture and interiors. For landscapes it goes without saying there are going to be situations where you want to get that bit more out of the shadows and want better overall colour rendition, and for interiors you’re often going to need to push the ISO a bit if you’re not using a tripod.
The ability to set a specific auto ISO ceiling and slowest shutter speed means less worrying about these two items when shooting in aperture priority than would otherwise be necessary. This may be applicable to Canon’s higher-tier bodies, but as far as I’m aware their triple-digit bodies don’t benefit from at least the latter functionality even with Magic Lantern. Having to step up from a 700D to a 70D to gain what is almost only that seems wasteful to me – then there’s still the issue of both of these cameras falling behind the NX30 in dynamic range and colour depth while being larger and heavier, making them automatic failures in comparison at their price points.
Wifi or at least remote smartphone/tablet tethered shooting is something which I’ve wanted ever since I first heard of DSLR Controller in 2012 and am now afforded without having to root my tablet / get and use a modded pocket 3G router / upgrade to a 70D/700D for. The wifi app isn’t as intuitive as it could be, but it can do what I need it to which is enough to start with.
The autofocus system in this regard is quite good. There’s not really any worrying about AF points; if you want to choose a specific area to focus on you enable point focus, move the point around (or touch on its screen to choose where to focus) and adjust the area’s size if necessary. Admittedly it’s not as ‘fancy’ as the 7D/70D’s AF is in terms of ‘zone focusing’, but I’m also no action/sports shooter so I don’t care for advanced continuous-shooting AF and didn’t drop DSLRs for mirrorless expecting to get a DSLR’s AF system either. For my purposes, this AF system is great.
The viewfinder being able to extend out from the body is great from a comfort perspective as it means people like me who use their left eye don’t have their face all scrunched up against the camera body. The fact it can tilt to several ratcheting positions also means you can drop the camera’s position slightly and gain a more comfortable shooting position on top of the no-face-scrunchingness.
In terms of lag, this appears to be something of a predictable situation. The first factor which comes into play appears to be the ISO, followed by the lens’ actual aperture, then the shutter speed.
ISO12800 f/5.6 1/125th presents with a lag-free image. Drop one third below that on SS and it lags up to the extent it’s going to. On the other hand, if the actual lens aperture is f/4 you can drop a full stop on the SS and the image will remain lag-free. Drop 1 1/3 and it’ll lag up. If you’re using ‘framing mode’, which will try to brighten the scene for the purposes of composing the image as opposed to showing you how you’re exposing, the chances are much higher it’s going to run into its ceiling, especially on a slower lens under lower light conditions.
In terms of how ‘bright’ the preview image can go, this seems to cap out at ISO6400 f/4 1/20th on the kit lens if using rounded numbers. This is going to be darker than you can see with the naked eye, but with a faster lens you ought to be able to see more.
As such you’re not necessarily going to get much joy out of this camera trying to do star photography or otherwise setting up in extremely-dark situations. This isn’t something I personally care for, however, and it’s possible to do these things with the camera, you’re just not going to be able to see as much as with a DSLR’s optical viewfinder. This could be worked around by getting appropriate viewfinder lenses to put into the hotshoe for framing or by taking wide-aperture high-ISO framing shots, however, and you can learn your lenses’ ‘true’ infinity settings for blind-focusing; make a printout of these you keep on a small card with you for easy reference if need be.
When it comes to focusing in such extreme light conditions, depending on just what you’re hoping to achieve I may think you foolish. If you want upper-tier DSLR-level AF, use a DSLR. Under normal lighting conditions the AF should do just fine, however.
The tilty-flippy screen is really a joy use. I’m already using it much more than I expected to as it’s allowing me to get the camera into positions I couldn’t get my head and expect to maintain stable balance at the same time. The fact there’s native focus peaking and a live histogram -two things CaNikon still don’t offer on their DSLRs for live view as far as I’m aware despite the fact it’s entirely possible with their super-sophisticated metering systems and Magic Lantern providing FP on the Canon DSLRs- means taking photos with the screen is also much easier even if the camera is held at arm’s length.
Thanks to the combination of the live histogram and ‘true live view’, the focus peaking, the exposure zebras and when not using the EVF the flexibility of the screen I’m already getting a much higher rate of keepers. The ‘optical preview’ (depth of field preview) function on the camera doesn’t present with FP dots nor an option to do so, but it does increase the sharpness of the image to emphasize what is in focus versus what isn’t, making it much more usable than a DSLR’s DoF preview through the viewfinder. There’s also almost no delay in the image brightness adjusting when using the mode in either the EVF or the rear screen; DoF preview brightness which only goes one way with a DSLR’s OVF. Down.
A feature of using the touch screen I haven’t quite made use of yet but which I know is going to be extremely useful is the ability to select an area to focus on, then drag that box to change what’s metered for. For quick snapshot purposes where I don’t care quite as much for making sure I’m exposing ‘properly’ I don’t have to waste time first framing, then focusing, then seeing if I want to adjust the exposure, doing so with dial-twiddling, maybe re-framing… Frame, tap on focus target, drag block to exposure target, select appropriate aperture, shoot, done. Minimum SS and max ISO I can set so I don’t have to be too mindful of those either.
There are a few ‘bracketed shot’ modes you can set on the camera, namely exposure bracketing, white-balance bracketing, DoF bracketing and ‘style’ bracketing. The DoF bracketing mode is available in P/Av modes and is represented in the menus by ‘exposure value’ ranges from +/- 0.3 to 3 in 1/3rd steps. The EB mode is also available in a 0.3-3 range. Both, unfortunately, only afford you 3 shots rather than allowing you to configure it for up to 5 (Magic Lantern on Canon does this).
I can see the DoF bracketing being useful if you’re shooting, say, an event where you’ve already configured a minimum SS you’re comfortable with, can adjust exposure compensation easily enough on the fly but don’t want to spend too much time checking nor thinking about exactly how much is really going to be in focus. The difference you set will of course vary by your requirements and all that, though I think it’ll become most useful when using longer lenses at closer distances where the slightest change in subject distance can make a world of difference in the area of acceptable focus.
Which brings me to the lenses. At first I was skeptical about how good Samsung’s lenses could be for how cheap they are, but I’ve so far been highly impressed by the quality of images I’m finding online from any of their available lenses and am very happy with the 18-55mm kit lens that comes with the NX30, even if it has some aggressive distortion when focusing close in the wider range.
I’m also quite liking the weight/size/performance ratios compared to competing offerings on crop DSLRs. Their 12-24mm lens, which I plan to get for a trip to Namibia I’m doing later this month, is absolutely miniscule and a featherweight, yet doesn’t feel cheap and again based on all images I’ve found online from it performs great for its price at its widest end while still doing quite well at its longer end.
Their 16-50mm f/2-2.8 lens is quite large and heavy, but no larger nor heavier than Canon’s 17-55mm f/2.8 while providing a one-stop wider aperture for its wider end and weather-sealing – this latter item being a feature Canon users have been begging Canon to include in their crop-only lenses for years but which Canon doesn’t seem to want to listen to, citing instead they should get drastically-more-expensive lenses like the 16-35 f/2.8 instead, giving up IS and focal length along with a fair amount of padding in their wallets.
I’d been sitting on my 500D thinking to stay in the Canon system for the longest time, hoping the company would finally bring about a crop camera which I actually considered worth getting or at least a decent-performing ‘entry level’ full-frame body which wouldn’t break the bank the way the 6D does, but they’re just not doing it, and even if they did their system is too heavy and large for my liking when I look at what their competition has on offer, especially when taking what you’re getting for what you’re paying into account (Fujifilm’s X-series in particular here).
I specifically also want an EVF because I’d grown spoiled by focus peaking, ‘semi-proper’ live view, a live (albeit unreliable) histogram and exposure zebras as Magic Lantern enabled on my 500D, but being limited to the rear screen for these would only frustrate me, and Magic Lantern caused battery-drain issues on my 500D even if it were turned off, so having to use something so unreliable and still-limited on the 70D with its inferior sensor (no tilty-flippy screen on 7D) is a deal-breaker. Granted, the Fujifilm cameras don’t have tilty-flippy screens, but the X-T1 at least has tilt and still has an EVF.
When it comes to Cons;
The lack of the ‘quick menu’ I feel may be a bit of an annoyance. Not a major one, but still an annoyance. As with most any camera today, if you go into the menus the camera remembers where you were last so it’ll put you right back there. Thanks to this if what you were last adjusting and plan to adjust again is your flash, it’s right there when you press the menu button.
Unfortunately, you don’t have any way to quickly access these settings if the last thing you adjusted happened to not be the flash – you’ll have to to go back to the first page (or flick back and forth between it, another page and back again), then roll the back wheel to move ‘up’ into the list to access the external (wireless) flash settings. When you press the Fn button on the back of the camera you get a quick-menu-like thing (not customizable for some reason) on which you can access the four different flash modes, and this might expand to control an externally-mounted flash, but I don’t know whether it would as I don’t have one to test with right now and the manuals don’t say anything about it.
Otherwise, the control schema on-camera for the flash seems the same as Canon’s. The actual flash unit itself appears to be a re-branded Metz Mecablitz flash, which with Metz’ recent filing for insolvency leaves me wondering what that means for Samsung’s future flash offerings in terms of compatibility with the current flagship.
The flash’s on-unit controls also don’t appeal to me at all. It looks like far too much button-pressing is involved for getting the flash ready for use form one usage-type to another, and the NX30 without a master-flash uses flash-based wireless control rather than RF or IR, so you don’t have 2nd curtain sync, which is a problem. I don’t know whether their flagship flash has IR control and I can’t find the thing’s manual online so I can’t check, either – but even if it does I wouldn’t want to mount so large a thing in the hotshoe just so I could get 2nd curtain sync when using other flashes remotely, not have to tote it around with me just for that functionality.
In this respect I really hope Samsung releases a wireless flash controller system or that Yongnuo or one of the other third-party wireless transceiver making companies sorts this out sooner rather than later.
Two minor annoyances/issues include that the viewfinder has a pretty-long activation distance, which means there’ll be some instances of unintentional deactivations of the flip-out screen as something passes by the EVF. Which is used can be toggled in the menus of course, but it would’ve been nice if this could at least be done via the otherwise largely-unused ‘function’ menu.
The NX30 doesn’t have back-button focus and doesn’t let you manually focus while AF is on. This isn’t necessarily a major issue, at least, as manually focusing with focus peaking and the great focus rings these lenses have is a pleasure rather than a chore, so all it really amounts to is changing the focus switch to manual if you specifically want to manually focus, however;
You don’t necessarily need to do this either. The camera has a mode it calls ‘Direct Manual Focusing’, which basically means that once the camera has grabbed focus on something while AF is on and you begin tweaking the focus ring it’ll grant you manual focus control. That is to say, once it’s attained focus on something (anything). This shouldn’t be a problem in general, ‘real’ use, though, as the AF is ridiculously quick on this thing anyway.
Focus peaking also kicks in the instant you start adjusting the focus, so there’s no delay to worry about either, and the responsiveness of the ring can be adjusted and is non-linear, with a nice bar popping up to show you where in the focus range you are, though it unfortunately for no good reason doesn’t show distance units, just a bar with two extents and a sliding nib. This bar also only pops up if the lens is set to MF only, not when using DMF.
In contrast, and this is one of the things I very much prefer about Fuji’s mirrorless cameras, those show you the distance you’re focusing at in addition to whether you’ve reached the lens’ extents. Not only that, but their bar will tell you how much before and after that subject will be in focus in distance based on the aperture and focal-length combination you’re using. I can’t think of a good reason Samsung couldn’t have done this as well or at least provided an option for it. Maybe the camera will get it in a firmware update later on, who knows.
Finally, I don’t like what the camera does to high(er) ISO jpegs with its noise-reduction settings on. You can’t change its two NR settings at all when it’s in its auto/scene modes, nor tell the camera to shoot in raw or at least raw+jpeg, it disables all of that and leaves you with NR-butchered jpegs of varying sizes. This isn’t a problem for me personally as I exclusively shoot raw and won’t care the few times I’ll intentionally use the jpeg mode, but I can see it being an annoyance for many other users of the camera – such as my mom.
Basically, you don’t get to let the camera make a bunch of choices for you about an image’s processing but still provide you with a raw file at the same time for you to play with later.
That about wraps up my ‘first impressions’ of having ditched my DSLR for my first foray into the world of mirrorless. Next Monday I leave with my uncle for a ~10 day trip to Namibia -my first time going there- and plan to have along Samsung’s 12-24mm lens and either their 30mm f/2 or 50-200mm f/4-5.6. I’m as of yet undecided as to which, if either, I’ll get. I’m leaning towards the 50-200mm in the short term despite the 30mm being about 1 2/3 stops faster than the 18-55mm is at its fastest being Samsung may release a 24mm f/1.4 next year, which is much closer to something I’d like.
That’ll be an S-series lens, so at the price it’s likely to command I’d be back to simply looking at getting the Fuji X-T1 or its successor and their 23mm f/1.4, though it’s not a weather-sealed lens as the Samsung one would be. Not that I don’t have confidence in Samsung’s weather sealing just yet anyway.
Samsung are apparently releasing an 11-24mm f/4 S next year (so weather-sealed), but the NX1 -their only current weather-sealed offering- is larger and a little heavier than I’d like compared to the X-T1 (especially once paired with lenses), so if I had to get one or the other I’d probably be leaning to the X-T1 again – especially considering I’d be in a position where I have to get a similar lens and body to what I’d already have either way (NX30 and 12-24mm). Fujifilm’s current 10-24mm isn’t weather sealed, but they may replace it with something which is by the time I’m looking at their stuff again, and unless Samsung can improve on the issues mentioned here or the NX1/whatever comes after it address these issues and present an attractive enough package otherwise I’d still prefer the Fuji cameras.