For about a year now, video shooters have been debating about the two big players in entry-level 4K video: the Sony a7S and the Panasonic GH4. Now a new contender has entered the ring. Samsung’s NX1 seeks be a worthy, albeit unique addition to the industry’s current offerings.
The primary feature of the NX1 for video shooters is clearly the camera’s internal 4K recording capabilities. By offering 4K with what’s now the company’s flagship camera, Samsung has publicly declared that they take seriously the needs of both enthusiast and professional video producers. The result is a camera that stands equally among the competition but is not without flaws, and which may prove too much for some to handle.
For this review we shot with three different Samsung lenses: 50-150mm f2.8, 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 and 15-55mm 3.5-5.6, along with a Kingston 64GB Class 10 SDHC card.
The Shooting Experience
Right out of the box, the NX1 feels great. Thanks to the mirrorless design, the NX1 is compact, but it doesn’t feel like a consumer camera. The best word to describe the NX1 is dense. It doesn’t have the hollow, plastic feel of many consumer cameras. Each button, knob and dial feels like it’s purpose-built. The shooting mode dial locks in place with the press of a button, and frequently used controls like ISO, white balance, shutter and aperture all have dedicated controls in convenient places; no holding one button down while spinning a click wheel required. It even has a dedicated mobile connect button to easily send files to a mobile device for a quick post to Instagram — at least in theory. The NX1 uses the h265 encoding standard, which keeps file size very small. A high-capacity SD card will take you a long way. However, despite the small size, there are currently no smartphones that natively support h265, so sending video files from the camera directly to your smartphone and off to Instagram is currently impossible.
Thanks to a recent firmware update, it’s possible to change all exposure settings while recording. However, the very handy touch interface is disabled during recording, so changing settings requires physical button presses or click wheel turns, meaning you may experience some camera shake if you attempt to make adjustments on the fly.
We are of course thankful that Samsung includes volume meters on screen while recording video, but we were disappointed to find that there is no way to adjust the microphone volume levels while recording. Adding to this, when not recording, adjusting levels means diving into the NX1’s menu and choosing a whole number between one and 10 — not exactly precise control.
The LCD is tiltable, which makes high- and low-angle shooting a breeze. It has pleasant sharpness and contrast, but the brightness is such that shooting outdoors, even in indirect sunlight, is difficult. While the electronic viewfinder works well when used, it’s generally inconvenient for video. Users will likely have to either get accustomed to shading the LCD or use an external monitor.
Speaking of the LCD, the on-screen shot assists are quite good for a photo-first camera. It ships with zebra stripes for monitoring exposure, which is near-essential for shooting video. Unfortunately, the zebras are all or nothing. They’re set to highlight 100 percent overexposure, and that’s all you get. It’s nice to be able to set zebras at 60-70 percent to highlight skin-tones, so it’s sad that setting customization is lacking here. Like most DSLRs and MILCs, the NX1 offers a histogram for monitoring, however, it disappears as soon as you hit the record button.
Focus assist is spectacular. Not only can you set automatic 5x or 10x digital zoom for whenever you adjust the focus ring (outside of when you’re recording), but you also have the option of enabling focus peaking as either white, red or green highlights. Overall, with the focus assist features enabled, you’ll never have an excuse for out of focus footage.
If you choose to use the NX1’s autofocus, plan for a mixed bag of results. Focus speeds varied quite a bit based on the lens, with longer zoom lenses taking a bit more time. Shorter lenses were very fast and accurate. The touch auto focus works just like your smartphone — tap to focus on a location — and Samsung has even included a one-touch shot option, where tapping the screen very quickly focuses and snaps a photo. It feels great — very responsive and satisfying. When shooting video, the same touch focus feature exists and is equally fast. That makes it great for setting up a shot, but impossible to use while recording. The focus pull is far too quick and robotic feeling to be passed off as an analog, cinematic-looking focus pull. Lastly, the focus tracking is quite accurate and can be used for video in some situations.
The NX1 has a native 1.5x crop factor, essentially making a 50mm lens act more like a 75mm. The result is tighter shots than those from the same lens on a full-frame camera. While not as nice as the Sony a7S’ full frame, this is about on par with the Panasonic GH4. In fact, when shooting 4K, the NX1 pulls ahead of both cameras, as the GH4 crops the image further, to nearly 2.3x for 4K and the a7S can’t record 4K internally at all — it will only output 4K via HDMI to an external recorder. The NX1 has the strengths of both in that it records internally and doesn’t crop the the image beyond the native 1.5x.
The NX1 creates a slow motion file that you can either leave as-is or quadruple the speed back to real time in post production.
On the down side, the NX1 lacks a dedicated movie mode, meaning that while stopped, the NX1’s LCD shows an image edge to edge, then letterboxes as soon as the record button is pressed. It makes framing difficult. As a workaround, Samsung enables the OK button as the Pause button, allowing shooters to remain in shooting mode while paused. Pressing the record button a second time dis-engages shooting mode.
Shooters who have the luxury of using an external recorder like an Atomos Ninja or Shogun gain the added benefit of being able to record 8-bit 4:2:2 video. While this feature is becoming more and more commonplace, we would have liked to see full 10-bit, as that would match the GH4’s current capabilities.
If you’re the type of shooter that likes to fiddle with picture styles — or picture wizard, as Samsung calls it — you’re in luck. The NX1 comes with several presets and gives you the option of adjusting RGB balance, saturation, sharpness, contrast and hue. That’s more settings than most cameras offer. In our tests, playing with the picture wizard offered little more than consumer grade looks. Even with everything neutralized or completely off, there was no equivalent to a flat cinema-style profile that’s similar to something like Technicolor’s Cinestyle for Canon cameras.
Finally, while it’s easy to be distracted by the 4K capabilities, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the NX1 can shoot 1920 x 1080 all the way up to 120 fps. Strangely, the feature isn’t included with the other video resolutions and frame rates. Rather, to access 120 fps, you need to set your video to 1920 x 1080 30 fps then choose .25x slow motion. The NX1 creates a slow motion file that you can either leave as-is or quadruple the speed back to real time in post production. Video shot in .25x slow motion turns out as glass-smooth as you’d expect, and it’s a big advantage over the NX1’s nearest competition, as neither the Panasonic GH4 nor the Sony a7S have this capability at 1920 x 1080.
At first glance, the footage coming right out of the NX1 is impressive. It has a very clean and cinematic look. However, it appears that the camera does some heavy processing in order to achieve a good look by default.
When taking a closer look at full resolution, the NX1 footage seems to offer very low noise images at the cost of sharpness. It’s not that the footage looks soft, and in fact, you may never notice the reduced sharpness unless comparing it to a direct competitor, but it’s there. Low-light noise is minimal, we suspect due to Samsung's Adaptive Noise Reduction applied in-camera.
To test low light performance, we shot a static scene of a director’s chair in front or a brick wall, lit by only a couple fluorescent office lights in a windowless room. At 1600 and lower ISO, there was hardly any noticeable noise. 3200 ISO began to show some digital artifacting, and 6400 resulted in more artifacting still. There was a surprising lack of organic, grainy-looking noise that you’d expect to see in a still photograph. While the artifacting is certainly not ideal, we still concluded that users can expect to achieve nearly noise-free footage up to 1600 ISO and noisy, but still usable footage up to 6400 ISO. The noise in beyond 6400 renders the footage unusable by most standards, which, outside the Sony a7S, is not abnormal for a camera at this price point.
As mentioned the NX1 doesn’t offer a truly flat picture style. The result is footage with true and vibrant color and high contrast. However, we were happy to see that our NX1 footage, even after having gone through the transcoding process to get to h264, gave us a bit more latitude in post than expected. Examining our footage on a waveform monitor revealed that some blacks came in under 0 IRE, allowing us to recover some detail in the shadows. Don’t misinterpret this as implying raw-level flexibility, but the dynamic range is a bit more than you might expect after looking at your untouched footage.
Despite the lack of an anti-aliasing filter, moire isn’t really noticeable, even in tight patterns. We did experience some moire when downscaling 4K to 1080 in post, but only in preview files. Using a high quality codec seemed to eliminate the problem.
While it may not be the case in the near or distant future, as of the date of this writing, the video files the NX1 producers are a huge pain to work with. The h265 standard simply has not yet been adopted by Microsoft, Apple, Adobe or any of the other of the software industry leaders. That means you’ll need to convert the NX1’s video files to something usable; mostly likely h264.
PC and Mac users can use Samsungs included Movie Converter, but it's pretty slow. It took us three hours to convert 13GB of 4K video, for example. Handbrake does a decent job of transcoding, but the Mac version won’t do more than one file at a time — a cumbersome process to say the least. Wondershare is available for both, and it reportedly is up to 4x faster than Movie Converter or Handbrake, but it’s $60 for a perpetual license. If true, it’s worth the money, because both Handbrake and Movie Converter are painfully slow. 13 GB of footage took us about three hours to transcode on a $8,000 beast of a PC.
Once converted, the workflow is about the same as working with any 4K MPEG file, but it’s rough getting to that point. With any luck, by the time you read this article, h265 pains will be a non-issue, but for now, it’s definitely something to consider. Since the NX1 creates h265 files that are 1/2 to 1/3 the size of their h264 counterparts, we expect h265 to eventually catch on.
Should you buy it?
Let’s get down to brass tacks. If you need a 4K-capable, interchangeable-lens camera, the NX1 is probably worth your money. As of now, this author is leaning slightly toward the NX1 over the GH4 for one primary reason: The NX1 doesn’t crop your sensor when shooting in 4K and the GH4 does. Sure, the GH4 has a sharper image and an easier to use codec, but not having that added crop makes shooting on the NX1 a much more pleasurable experience.
Samsung is taking a gamble on h265, but it’s a gamble we suspect they’ll win. Unless another codec comes out of left field and dethrones the ubiquitous h264, h265 is surely coming. As soon as the major software companies get on board, h265 will be as easy as most other files you’re used to working with. Until then, expect to spend a little more time than usual staring at a transcoding progress bar.
The NX1 marks Samsung's entry into the professional-level video, and it’s not just a token entry; the NX1 is a strong contender for your dollar versus the competition. For a very affordable price, the NX1 offers a complete package of commendable image quality, a complete feature-set, 120 fps at 1080, and best of all, internal 4K.
Sensor Size & Type: CMOS, 23.5 x 15.7 mm
Effective Megapixels (DSLR Only): Actual: 30.7 Megapixel, Effective: 28.2 Megapixel
Video Format: AVi, MP4 (h265)
Resolution & Frame Rate: 4096 x 2160 (24p), 3840 x 2160: (30p), 1920 x 1080 (120p, 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p, 24p), 1280 x 720 (120p, 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p, 24p), 640 x 480 (120p, 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p, 24p)
Recording Media: SD, SDHC, SDXC (up to 64 GB)
Display Size and Resolution: 3" Rear Touch Screen Tilting AMOLED (1,036,000)
Lens Mount: Samsung NX
Audio In: 1/8" Microphone
Audio Out: 1/8" Headphone
Video Out: HDMI D (Micro)
Other Interface: USB 3.0
Shutter Rage: 30 – 1/8000 seconds in Manual Mode
ISO Range: 100-25600 (Extended Mode: 100-51200)
Shot Assist: Focus Assist Zoom, Focus Assist, Zebra Stripes, Histogram
Battery: 1x BP1900 Rechargeable Lithium-ion Battery Pack1860 mAh
• Internal 4K with no added sensor cropping
• Focus peaking and zebra stripes in camera
• 120 fps in 1080
• Very manageable video file sizes
• Cumbersome file format
• Image quality not as sharp as the competition
• Clunky audio controls
• No 10-bit out via HDMI
Mike Wilhelm is Videomaker’s Director of Content