Samsung NX30 Review
Samsung’s NX system is a bit of an oddball in the mirrorless market. It’s the second oldest of the compact ILC systems and has a pretty balanced selection of good lenses (if only a few of them), yet has failed to gain the traction of its competitors like Micro Four Thirds, Sony, and Fuji. With the NX30, its newest flagship, Samsung hopes to change some of that. But at a price of $999 and some stiff competition, is it enough?
Disclaimer: As usual, this review is written from a real-world usage perspective after having spent some time with the NX30 and a couple of NX lenses as my main kit. As I don’t have much experience with its predecessors, this review is also written from the perspective of someone new to the NX system. I'm not including exposure values for the images here as some of my post processing work is so heavy that it will essentially make those meaningless, but feel free to check the EXIF info on Flickr if you'd like. Most images are processed to varying extents except where otherwise noted, and are shot with either the kit NX 18-55mm, or the NX 45mm F1.8 (non 3D) lens.
Build and Ergonomics
At first glance, it would be easy to mistake the NX30 for a small DSLR. Substantially changed (read: enlarged) from the NX20, this new model forgoes minimizing the body in order to prioritize ergonomics. I’d say it’s paid off; the NX30’s sculpted grip is one of the most comfortable I’ve used on any camera, the thumb rest is well-designed, and all the buttons feel sensibly placed. Though I personally prefer smaller bodies, there’s no denying the NX30 is very comfortable to use, and it’s still smaller than something like a GH3.
When you first pick up the camera, chances are you’ll be surprised at how light it is. Indeed, the body weighs nearly exactly the same as an Olympus OM-D E-M5, at about 430 grams, despite being quite larger. That said, it still feels very sturdy, with no flexing or creaking. Samsung seems to have figured that most people who buy this camera will be carrying it with lenses, and that having a somewhat bigger body won’t make a huge storage difference so long as the weight is reasonable. It’s not weather-sealed though, which is somewhat disappointing given that Samsung is soon to introduce weather-sealed lenses. Also, with fully articulating screens, I do always worry I’ll end up accidentally snapping it off, but I've never heard of that actually happening to anyone.
Speaking of the screen, it’s gorgeous. The OLED panel is sharp with the vibrant colors and the deepest of blacks, is decently visible in sunlight, and is probably the best I’ve ever used. Unfortunately, I can’t provide quite the same praise for the EVF, which feels like it’s lagging behind by a generation. The viewfinder does feature useful articulating design which allows it to be tilted at nearly 90 degrees for a lower vantage point, but I would have gladly traded this feature for a greater magnification (the image is slightly smaller than that of the much older E-M5). It’s a shame, as the panel is wonderfully sharp at 2.4 million dots–or 1024x768 if we can finally stop using useless marketing speak–but with a small magnification, not-that-great optics, and noticeable color streaking, you’re left with an underwhelming viewfinder experience. It’s not that it’s bad per se, but when Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, and Fujifilm all provide much larger and/or better viewfinders, it’s a bit of a disappointment. Nice eyecup though.
I’m not going to bother going in-depth about image quality here. The sensor is essentially unchanged from Samsung’s NX300, and it gives you pretty typical modern APS-C performance, which is to say very good. Anecdotally speaking, RAW performance seems better than Canon’s APS-C sensors and closer to Sony’s: low light performance is solid, color depth seems quite good, and I have no complaints about dynamic range.
SooC JPEG. Nice color and contrast here from the wonderful 45mm F1.8 lens.
I was also pleasantly surprised with the JPEGs during the daytime, where I felt it rendered good skin tones, accurate colors, and tasteful contrast. A word of warning though: the OLED screen will make everything look more vibrant and generally better than it will appear on almost any other screen, so don’t be surprised if the images don’t look quite as good on your monitor as they did right off the camera. Low light JPEGs unfortunately did not impress me nearly as much; past ISO 1600 the camera has a great tendency to mush detail, even with noise reduction set to off.
In other words, image quality is what we’ve come to expect from the category, and the 20MP resolution hits a nice sweet spot between resolution and file size. Nothing revolutionary here, but nothing disappointing. We’re living in a great time where most ILC’s have sensors that are at the very least “good enough”.
Edited and cropped from a SooC JPEG. Untouched image here.
So with that out of the way, what’s really important to me is what it feels like *using* the NX30. It gives a good first impression. As mentioned before, the camera is extremely comfortable; the combination of its very light weight and beefy contoured grip and thumb rest means it’s one of the few cameras I’ve felt comfortable using without a strap. There’s a plethora of buttons which are all placed nicely, and I appreciate having a drive dial in addition to the two control dials and mode dial is a nice touch. I really don’t understand having a control dial around the four-way navigation buttons though, as it means you can’t use it when holding the camera with one hand. Having the fully articulating screen was nice for low-angle portrait-orientation shots, and the tilting EVF features was surprisingly useful for inconspicuously capturing street photos. Fortunately, people are concerned more with where you’re looking at than the direction the lens is pointing.
I also thought the menu and interface were excellent examples of designing a camera accessibly. The menus are simple, touch-friendly, and provide an explanation for any item you hover on for a couple of seconds. The interface is pretty and gives nice visual depiction for many features (the white balance menu has images corresponding to its various settings, for example), and the scene modes seem genuinely useful for beginners.
Focusing performance is solid overall, but suffers some significant caveats. It features hybrid phase-detection and contrast detection AF, and in good light focuses quickly and accurately using a lens like the 45mm F1.8. Not as quick as Olympus’ or Panasonic’s focusing systems, or Fuji’s X-T1, but generally there's nothing to complain about. Continuous autofocus worked surprisingly well in the daytime, and tracking was able to lock onto subjects reliably even on a shallow depth-of-field lens like the 45mm. It can certainly handle subjects moving at a walking pace with full accuracy, and even performed better than expected at following cars moving in my direction. Tracking also did a good job of holding onto subjects when other objects passed in front of them. In all, C-AF seemed to perform like an entry/mid level DSLR, with the added benefit of having phase detect points across virtually the entire frame.
Take this SooC JPEG sequence for instance, where the tracking point was set to the roughly the hood/windshield of the vehicle. Not too bad.
In low light, however, results are much more mixed. In indoor or night-time lighting, I found the AF system to sometimes slow down to a crawl, with a number of times where the camera refused to focus at all, especially when you turn off the annoying green AF assist lamp. This is even more frustrating given that there’s no option to give priority to the shutter button over focus confirmation so you can use manual focus to adjust your focus point should the camera fail. Sometimes, the camera would actually focus correctly, but could not confirm focus and would therefore not allow me to snap the photo. Despite using an F1.8 lens, I often found myself needing to switch over to manual focus at night-time where focus was just too unreliable to glean consistent results.
At 45mm(68mm equiv.), F1.8, 1/80, and ISO 6400, this would have been a challenging situation for any camera, but the NX30 flat out refused to focus throughout the many attempts to get this shot; I had to use MF, which was also a pain due to the laggy EVF image.
There are a number of other missing features or performance problems that make me feel like the camera could’ve used some more testing before release, too. The live view feed can get extremely laggy in very low light, exacerbating the issues with low light photography mentioned above. Additionally, for some reason only Samsung knows, there’s no way of activating focus tracking when shooting with the EVF; it can only be activated via a specific mode on the touch screen. I’m going to want to use tracking the most when shooting sports or action, in which case I’ll probably be using the EVF! It would also come very much in handy for using focus and recompose without risking taking your subject out of the focal plane, but no cigar.
The camera also has plenty of control points—more than my E-M5, for instance—yet manages to feel less customizable than it should be. You have the option to change the function of four buttons, in addition to several functions accessible with iFn button on the lens, yet each of these can only be assigned one of a few pre-determined options. There’s no option to change the Wi-Fi button to anything other than Wi-Fi features, for example, or the exposure lock button to handle anything other than exposure or focus locking. There’s no way to assign magnification or peaking to a button; they can only be turned on in the menus, are only activated when you turn the focus ring on the lens, and you can’t move around the magnify box. Likewise, you have can’t change what the control dials do, and have no control overexposure without pressing the exposure compensation button unless you’re in M mode, in which case said button neither does anything nor can be customized. Basically, I find myself needing to dive into the menus more often than I should have to in a camera of this feature set and price bracket.
The interface, though well-designed, sometimes feel less responsive than it should be. Menus will generally be fast, but then have moments of inexplicable slowdowns. This is particular palpable in playback mode, where magnifying an image often takes a full second or so, which can seriously slow you down if you’re trying to review multiple images in a set. Likewise, when you zoom out into a multiple image folder view, the photos can take much too long to load. It’s not that it’s unbearably slow, but it’s less responsive than a flagship camera should feel; my old G3 performs both of these functions more quickly. Though normally performing fine, these issues and other quirks occasionally made me feel as if the NX30 were a beginner’s camera put into a grown-up body.
Back on a more positive note, one of the headline features of this camera is its Wi-Fi integration, and the NX30 easily has the deepest and simplest integration I’ve tried yet on a mirrorless camera, so I thought it deserved its own section. With my Android phone (a Nexus 4), I was able to very quickly set up the devices to communicate simply by touching my phone to the side of the NX30 and allowing the NFC to work its magic. The phone auto-magically directed me to download the requisite app, and then quickly set up the Wi-Fi connection, where I could use my phone to either view snapped images or act as a remote viewfinder with nearly full control. More impressive than this, however, is that you don’t need a smartphone at all to take advantage of many of the camera’s Wi-Fi features. Right from the camera, you are able to upload images onto Facebook, Picasa, Flickr, and Dropbox, send images through email, post videos onto YouTube, and backup and transfer your photos onto a PC wirelessly. It’ll also notify you of any firmware updates when you connect to the internet. Heck, there’s even a baby monitor feature!
It’s not perfect; you’re limited to the included services—there’s no Instagram or 500px, for example—and you can’t do other things while the camera is transferring photos. But the biggest knock on all of this for me is that there is no way to back send or back up RAW files unless you convert it into a JPEG, which makes the features useless for most of my type of shooting. Hopefully this can be remedied in a firmware update, as I’d love to be able to automatically transfer my photos to my computer or Dropbox through Wi-Fi. Still, it’s certainly more than my E-M5 can do.
Miscellaneous Usage Notes
-If you angle the EVF upward, you can effectively disable the proximity sensor from turning off the articulating display.
-The camera features a focus bracketing mode, which is a nice touch for focus stacking macro photos.
-You can still upload photos onto other services using your phone.
-You can’t activate tracking when using the EVF, but using face-detection mode + C-AF effectively does the same thing for portraiture.
-The buffer varies wildly. It can only handle about a second or so of shooting if using raw, especially at 9 FPS, but it can go on for way longer when shooting JPEGs at the reduced “Normal” rate. Definitely worth getting the fastest card you can find.
-When using C-AF, the camera will prioritize the shot being in focus instead of the FPS rate.
-Focus peaking comes at three sensitivities, but I feel like none of them are as sensitive as I’d like.
-The record button is nicely placed above the thumbrest and indented enough that you’ll never hit it accidentally, but it’s not hard to press either.
-Video mode only does 24p in a really wide 1920x810 aspect ratio.
-You can only change exposure compensation during video recording if you’re in manual mode, by adjusting shutter and aperture parameters. ISO can be set before initiating record.
-Focus transitions are smooth during video, presumably due to PDAF.
-The battery actually displays percentages, which is much nicer than a 3-level icon that suddenly flashes low battery out of nowhere in the middle of a shoot.
-There’s no shoot without lens setting, but you can still use legacy lenses with an adapter so long as it presses the mechanical switch within the mount.
However, no free lensing!
As I finish up my time with the NX30, I’m left with somewhat mixed feelings. In some ways, the camera is a joy to use. It’s extremely comfortable, lightweight, and generally performs admirably during the day or good light, with one of the more successful continuous autofocus systems I’ve seen on a mirrorless camera. At the same time, focusing is less reliable than I’d prefer in very low light (although image quality remains great), the EVF isn’t as good as it should be, and the camera has a number of quirks that in some ways mar the shooting experience.
Thus, I’m left a bit confused about who the NX30 is intended for. It costs $999, and is designed like an advanced enthusiast or semi-pro body with buttons to spare and a laundry-list spec sheet, but it’s those same enthusiasts and pros who are most likely to be annoyed by the small idiosyncrasies I mentioned. There are many good ideas here, and the camera’s simple and intuitive interface make for a highly accessible device, but it doesn’t quite meet the workhorse expectations I’d hoped for a flagship mirrorless device. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great camera. It’s just… so are its competitors, and I’m having trouble seeing how Samsung expects to pull ahead.
But perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh. There is great potential here, and some of the benefits of the camera, in particular its Wi-Fi features, could prove incredibly useful to some shooters. It could make a great camera for those who are looking to take their photography more seriously, but aren't quite doing this on a working level. Besides, almost all the issues I had with this camera look fixable or improvable with a solid firmware update or two; here’s to hoping.
Given its announcement of fast, weather-sealed lenses--not to mention recurring rumors--Samsung is almost certainly going to be releasing a higher end model aimed more squarely at professional photographers any time now. The NX30 may not be the camera for me, but it should make a solid option for a mid-range enthusiast, learning photographer, or anyone who doesn't need pro-level responsiveness from their cameras. Samsung is a powerful innovator, and that is visible here; I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.
You can buy the Samsung NX30 with the kit 18-55 for $999 through B&H or Adorama. Please note that purchasing any of the products linked to in this review (or throughout other posts on the website) earns us a small affiliate commission and helps us continue growing; your price remains the same.
Feel free to ask any questions you have in the replies below, and I’ll gladly address them as best I can! You can find more edited samples on my personal Flickr page, or more untouched JPEGs on an alternate account made specifically for review purposes.