Samsung NX1 Review – With its pioneering sensor and efficient H.265 codec, Samsung delivers a 4K powerhouse

Although we’re still a long way off from viewing 4K television broadcasts, 4K capture has been a reality for several years with cameras like the RED EPIC and Sony F55 for high-end features and the Panasonic GH4 and Canon 1D C for indie productions. But with this new explosion of 4K cameras, the 4K-indie workflow is still a work-in-progress. Whether you’re capturing in Raw or with an intermediate codec like ProRes or DNxHD, the files are extremely large and typically need to be output to an external recorder such as a Convergent Design Odyssey7Q+ or Atomos Shogun.

Samsung is a name you probably wouldn’t associate with indie filmmaking. Sure they make terrific mobile devices and television sets, but as a camera manufacturer they’re a new player to the game, especially for filmmaking. For the past few years, they’ve released a number of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras that were aimed more at consumer shooters. But in 2014, they released their flagship pro camera, the NX1. Samsung sent over an NX1 for review, as well as their new 50-150mm S series zoom. After playing with it for a few days, it was immediately clear that the NX1 is a game-changing camera – in particular how it handles 4K.

NX1’s Key Specs — Captures both 4K DCI (4096 x 2160) and UHD (3840 x 2160) HEVC/H.265 files — Super35mm-sized 28MP BSI APS-C sensor (23.5 x 15.7mm) — High-speed DRIMe V image processor that enables 4K processing to internal cards — Fast and accurate NX AF System III with 205 Phase Detection AF points and 153 cross-type sensor for full focus coverage — Proprietary Samsung NX mount — Super AMOLED with touch screen (1036K dots) and OLED EVF (XGA 2,360K dots) with 100% field of view — Multi-core image processor allows 28MP Raw file capture at 15-fps – a great feature for fashion photographers

Here are some 4K samples of some rough handheld footage I shot.
A 6.5K Powerhouse The moment I glanced at some rough handheld 4K footage I had shot with the NX1, I was blown away. Since I don’t own the new 5K iMac or a 4K display, my iMac’s 2560 x 1440 resolution was the highest resolution I had access to. In terms of image detail on a non-4K display, the images were far superior to my 5D Mark III, as well as the Nikon D750 that I recently tested. In fact, the image quality was on par with images I shot from the Canon 1D C, Blackmagic Production Camera 4K, and RED SCARLET-X.

In your hands, the NX1 has a solid feel due to its magnesium alloy body. It’s a touch larger and heavier (138.5 x 102.3 x 65.8mm, 550g) than the Sony A7S and slightly larger than the Panasonic GH4. For video, its movie record button is positioned to the right of the shutter button and you don’t have to be in Live View mode like a DSLR to capture video. Like most mirrorless systems, when your eye comes up to the viewfinder, the EVF engages and the LED screen shuts off. For those that can’t afford an additional EVF or LCD screen, the NX1’s two viewing screens are excellent.

Like many mirrorless systems, in your hands the NX1 feels more like a networking device than an optical one. One of the big innovators in mobile devices, Samsung has done a fantastic job with the NX1’s menu system. Navigating through the menus is both intuitive and snappy. In terms of connections, the NX1 contains a USB 3.0 connector, HDMI out, 3.5mm stereo mic input and 3.5mm headphone jack. The NX1 captures files to SD, SDHC, SDXC cards to a single slot.

The NX1 with the new Samsung 50-150mm S series zoom.

The NX1 contains Samsung’s newly designed 28MP APS-C CMOS sensor (the highest megapixel count for an APS-C sensor) and supports both 4K DCI and UHD. The CMOS sensor is a back-illuminated sensor (BSI) that helps increase the capture of light, improving low light performance. For filmmakers, what’s amazing about the sensor is that it actually performs a full 28-megapixel readout, making it essentially a 6.5K camera. Exporting 4K stills from my Premiere Pro timeline produced images that were as good as the stills from the camera!

The other thing that separates the NX1 from other 4K cameras is its internal codec, which is HEVC/H.265. With H.265, you’re able to capture 4K files to SDHC or SDXC cards at around half the file sizes of H.264. You can output 4K video with the NX1’s Clean HDMI output but for a camera that runs only $1,499, I’m not eager to purchase a 3rd party recorder that will cost more than my camera.

If the Sony A7S is the ARRI ALEXA of compact mirrorless cameras then the NX1 is your low-budget RED EPIC. As you would expect, the A7S bests the NX1 in both sensitivity and latitude. Shooting at 3200 ISO with the NX1, I was able to capture relatively clean images, although I did notice considerable noise in the shadow areas at 6400 ISO and above. Again, it’s unfair to compare the low light capabilities to the A7S’ 12-megpixel sensor, but if you’re shooting in good lighting conditions, the NX1 performs at a decent level.

The NX1 contains both a Super AMOLED with touch screen (1036K dots) and OLED EVF (XGA 2,360K dots) with 100% field of view.

Samsung recently released a free firmware upgrade (v1.20) that offers several improvements to the NX1’s video capabilities, including audio and ISO adjustments during movie capture, 23.98 and 24p frame rates for both UHD and 1080 (previously UHD allowed only 30p), “PRO” movie quality during 1080 capture, time code output via HDMI to external recorders, AF speed control, 4:3 and 2.35:1 aspect ratio markers, and more.

Perhaps the most exciting feature in the new firmware upgrade – especially for filmmakers – is the inclusion of new gamma curves for contrast and dynamic range. Working in a Rec. 709 color space, it’s really important to try and capture your final look in camera. The Sony A7S contains S-Log2 that gives you an amazing 15.3 stops of latitude and Nikon has created a Flat color profile for its D810 and D750 that provides more latitude for your grade.

After trying out the NX1’s new D Gamma feature, I was a little disappointed. Although it does offer a touch more dynamic range, it does not create a “digital negative” like Sony’s S-Log2. To create a more “flat-like” look while in the D Gamma setting, I dialed down both my Contrast and Sharpness to -10, which moved it closer to a “Log” look, although I would probably compare it more to Panasonic’s CineLike D mode. Perhaps in v1.30, Samsung could take the curve even further.

Here’s an example of creating a more Log-like look with the new Gamma DR setting.
For slo-mo shooting, the NX1 can capture x0.5 (60-fps) at 1920×1080 at 60p or 30p and x0.25 (120-fps) at 30p. The 1080 slo-mo image quality is some of the best I’ve seen for a compact mirrorless or DSLR system.

4K Workflow
As stunning as the 4K images looked, one thing that you should be aware of is at time of this writing, there is no current solution in working with native HEVC files for both Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X. Samsung offers their own video converter but it’s PC-only and converts your H.265 files to H.264. I did find a great transcoding software, VideoConverterUltimate by Wondershare Software ($40 in the Mac App store), which allows you to import your native H.265 files and transcode them to a number of different formats, including ProRes and Avid DnXHD. For my 4K workflow, I captured UHD at 24p and transcoding the files to ProRes LT in their native resolution. (Depending on the project, I will usually transcode H.264 files to ProRes in Prelude CC so this extra step wasn’t a deal breaker.)

In terms of operation, the NX1 offers two features that my Canon DSLRs do not contain, which are peaking and zebras. Both features came in handy, especially when shooting in manual mode with the EVF in bright sunlight. Along with peaking and zebras, the display gives you an easy to read focus scale, as well as an exposure scale. Like almost all compact DSLRs or mirrorless systems (with the exception of the Sony RX10), the NX1 does not contain internal ND filters so you’re still going to need a number of ND filters.

If you’re a single shooter with poor focus pulling skills, you may want to try out the NX1’s AF features. For video capture, you’ll want to use the Continuous AF mode in order to track a moving subject. Like the Canon 70D, the NX1 contains a touch screen and Touch AF to be able to focus on any part of the frame. I found the Touch AF to be decent, although not as organic looking as the 70D’s Dual Pixel CMOS technology when performing rack focus pulls. What’s helpful is that you can adjust the speed of the AF so the focus pulls look more “hand-made”.

To shoot with my Rokinon EF-mount cine lenses, I used a Fotodiox lens adapter (EF to NX mount).

One weakness of the NX system might be its lack of lenses since it’s a proprietary mount. The 50-150mm Premium S Telephoto Zoom (35mm equivalent – 77-231 mm) is a pretty great zoom, containing 20 elements in 13 groups, a maximum aperture of f/2.8, and its solid construction limits chromatic aberration while delivering great images. There’s also 4-axis control with a 7-axis sensor for detecting shake, giving you an pretty smooth movements. A more traditional zoom lens is the 16-50mm f/2-2.8 S ED OIS Lens (35mm equivalent – 24.6 – 77mm), which has 18 elements in 12 groups, optical image stabilization, and a precise stepping motor for smooth focus. Although they are still lenses, both zooms should have you covered for a variety of shots.

If you have Canon, Nikon or MFT lenses, there are a number of 3rd party adapters on the market that will allow you to shoot with the camera. I own a couple of EF-mount Rokinon Cine prime lenses and picked up a Fotodiox lens mount adapter (EF to Samsung NX) to mount my lenses. It worked like a charm and was able to make better manual focus pulls through the EVF.

Overall, the Samsung NX1 is pretty amazing camera technology and one of the best mirrorless or DSLR cameras I’ve seen in a long time. (The NX1 received the top spot in HDVideoPro’s Top Products of 2014.) It’s really going to push other manufacturers like Canon and Nikon to transition to 4K capture. With the A7S, GH4, and now NX1, there’s never been a better time to “Ditch the DSLR” – just like Samsung’s slogan says.

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