The Samsung NX1 features a brand-new 28 megapixel APS-C backside illuminated sensor. It’s the highest resolution APS-C sensor around, and that is both exciting and brings some trepidation with the smaller pixels such a resolution brings.
Dynamic Range and Color
Evaluating the dynamic range on the NX1 proved to be a bit challenging. After the first day or two of shooting with the camera, my initial impression is that dynamic range was good, but fell a bit short of competitors like the a6000 and the Fuji X-T1. The main reason for this is that I found it particularly easy to blow the highlights with the NX1, and almost none of the blown highlight data was recoverable in RAW.
Indeed, this is the case: there is very little highlight headroom in the RAW files with the NX1, and so the ‘Expose to the Right’ advice that is often given isn’t really advisable when shooting scenes with high contrast with this camera. However, I delved deeper and even did controlled tests against my X-T1 and a6000 to determine the true range of the RAW files. What I found is that the overall range is actually right in line with these cameras, but the RAW file is calibrated such that there is far more data that can be recovered in the shadows than can be recovered in the highlights.
Shadows pushed 5 full stops contain good detail, minimal color shift and no major banding or artifacts. (The a6000, on the other hand, has lots of highlight headroom but falls apart rather spectacularly on extreme pushes of the shadows). In all, if you are careful with the highlights, there’s plenty of dynamic range available, but you really need to watch that histogram. When the highlights clip, they go fast and they go abruptly, so it really does require a bit of extra care on the part of the photographer.
The NX1 has a particularly beautiful color response that continues through the ISO range up to about ISO 3200. Beyond ISO 3200, color gets more muted, and becomes extremely muted at the extreme ISOs. The rendering is reminiscent of the great color that Fuji and Olympus manage to produce in their imaging engines with minimal postprocessing. I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth of color on the NX1.
Noise and Detail
The 28 megapixel sensor on the NX1, when used with a good lens, produces stunningly detailed images. It’s only a 480 pixel linear advantage over a 24 megapixel sensor, but somehow it seems more than that. Fine detail abounds in these files, and the most surprising thing to me given the pixel density is how clean the files are. Base ISO 100 files are very clean, lending the files a quality more reminiscent of a full-frame camera than most APS-C cameras. The sensor manages to retain large amounts of detail even at high ISO, with ISO 12,800 files showing plenty of detail (though also a fair amount of noise as well).
As far as noise performance itself is concerned, the NX1 is impressive as well in this area. Noise is kept to low levels up through ISO 1600, with ISO 3200 and even 6400 producing files with very manageable noise and plenty of detail. With proper noise reduction, ISO 6400 shots could be used for good size prints. ISO 12,800 shots start to get a bit muddy in the shadows, and color saturation takes a hit. ISO 25,600 still shows plenty of detail, but also plenty of noise. How usable these images are will depend much on your tolerance for grain, and would likely work best for monochrome work. ISO 51,200 is a step too far, and the dynamic range becomes extremely constricted, color saturation drops off a cliff and the noise level is extremely high. I’d avoid 51,200 unless you are going for an ultra-grainy image with a vintage look.
Overall, the noise performance at the pixel level is easily among the best APS-C cameras up to about ISO 3200. Beyond that it falters a bit, but still produces usable images. Considering the high pixel count, the overall noise in images at medium-high ISOs is impressively low.
The Samsung NX1 produces JPEGs that are quite good overall. At low ISOs, there is lots of detail, minimal compression artifacts and excellent color response. At higher ISOs, the default noise reduction is quite heavy-handed, and results in mushy details and a general blotchiness. Luckily, turning the noise reduction off on the camera produces files that are noisier, but also contain far more detail and a more natural grain. At the highest ISOs, though, I’d avoid JPEG altogether, as the noise combined with JPEG compression produces swirly colored artifacts that aren’t particularly attractive.
The NX1 has some rather robust video features, with native 4K video recording at both 4096×2160 and 3840×2160, and at 24p and 30p. 1080p recording at 60fps is also available. As I mentioned in the beginning, I’m not a videographer, and don’t pretend to know the intricate ins and outs of video work, so this section is short. I did take a handful of clips, and viewing the video, I found the NX1 to produce smooth natural video footage with very good detail, even at higher ISO. Full manual control is available, and continuous autofocus works quite well to keep moving subjects more or less in focus.
One issue that IS a problem for even the casual video shooter like myself is that the NX1 only records with the h.265 codec. This is a relatively new codec, and purports to provide very high quality video in a smaller file size. This is great for large video files like those produced by the NX1 or any other 4K capable camera. There’s only one problem: very few programs support h.265 as of this release. In fact, none of my installed programs could read the files, and this is not an uncommon occurrence, as the support at the moment is very thin. As a result, I had to convert all the files on my computer using a utility that Samsung provides, to convert the files to h.264. Needless to say, this is a pain in the rear end. It won’t be a big deal once more of the major video platforms support h.265, but at the moment, that support just isn’t there. Why Samsung couldn’t simply offer h.264 recording as an option is baffling to me.