I’ve been on the hunt for a while for a second camera to complement my Pentax dSLR – something much more compact that is capable of being worn on a belt or tossed in a small bag, but at the same time not giving much up in the way of image quality. I’ve recently acquired a Samsung NX1000 camera together with a Samsung NX 30 mm F2 pancake lens. Read on to see if this is this the compact setup I have been seeking.
I acquired an Olympus EPL-1 a couple of years back for this same intended purpose. This was one of the first generation micro 4/3rds interchangeable lens cameras , all of which were using the same 12 megapixel sensor. I didn’t quite warm to it for a few reasons:
- the standard Olympus 14-42mm kit lens just didn’t seem to do it for me. Some hold this lens in good regard; maybe I didn’t have a good copy, I don’t know. I thought images looked noticably better when I used the EPL-1 with an adapter to mount some of my old Pentax M series glass.
- the sensor was noisier than I was hoping for, with noise starting to become visible at ISO400. This didn’t give me much confidence that the EPL-1 would perform well when used for the sorts of indoor photos I might wish to take on holidays or during breaks in business trips (museums, historical building interiors) or for outdoors shooting in poor light (eg your typical dull and overcast European day).
- the Olympus menus were too complex and left me floundering when looking to change common settings. Olympus offers an incredible amount of camera customisation via its menus, but at the cost of a complex, heavily nested menu structure. With the EPL-1 being my second and less frequently used camera, every time I needed to delve into the menu to change settings I could never find what I wanted without a whole lot of frustration.
- the acquisition of a Panasonic 20mm F1.7 pancake lens was my intended upgrade to make the EPL-1 the compact walkabout solution I was seeking. It never happened, in part due to the Panasonic 20mm lens being priced at close to $500 in Australia. With my doubts growing that the EPL-1 wasn’t the basis of the solution I was looking for, I wasn’t prepared to double down and drop another $500.
Colours from the EPL-1 were typically Olympus nice but this wasn’t enough to offset what I saw as the negatives. As a result, the EPL-1 found itself left on the shelf far more than I had intended.
I’ve kept looking around as new cameras came to market, watching to see if a new release would be a better match to my criteria. I should note at this point that I accepted I would likely need to trade away a built in viewfinder in order to achieve the compactness I was seeking, and would have to make do with the rear LCD screen when composing shots.
Some of the cameras I considered but dismissed were:
Fuji with the X-trans sensor: Fuji offers a choice of interchangeable or fixed lens models with their unconventional but highly regarded APS-C sized X-trans sensor. These are solid, well made cameras with very good image quality. The 23mm F2 (35mm equivalent for 35mm film) fixed lens model would make an excellent walk about combination. I hold these cameras in high regard, but they were a little bulky for what I wanted and well outside of my budget for a second camera. The early firmware is also a bit quirky but Fuji appear to be working this out as upgrades come through. RAW files from the X-trans sensor also have had very limited support in RAW converters.
Sony NEX series: A mirrorless APS-C system with a range of models to choose from. But didn’t offer a quality and truly compact lens option in my target focal length range of 24-30mm. Some comments around the net that usability can be a bit frustrating. Having been challenged by the Olympus menus, once bitten, twice shy on this count.
Micro 4/3rds second generation with the improved 16 megapixel sensor: I thought long and hard here whether I should simply move to the next generation of micro 4/3rd camera. Again a bit pricey, particularly when I factored in adding the 20mm pancake lens to create the compact solution I was seeking. The 4/3rds format also means that a lot of pixels get thrown away if editing back to 3:2 or 16:9 proportions.
Pentax K-01: The love it or loath it mirrorless camera design by Marc Newson. Image quality is great as the K-01 uses the same 16 megapixel APS-C sensor as found in current Pentax dSLRs. And I would have been able to use all my Pentax lenses on it with full functionality. I quite like the look myself, and those who actually bought and used the camera like it. But the camera with lens attached was a bit too large and heavy. A K-01 with the DA 40XS pancake would have come close on size, but a 40mm lens (60mm full frame equivalent) was a narrower field of view than what I was after.
Ricoh GR: This fixed lens compact also uses the excellent Pentax 16 megapixel APS-C sensor. But the fixed lens is 18mm (28mm full frame equivalent) which is a bit wide in my opinion for a do-everything lens. Another one off the list. If the lens was 28mm or thereabouts, this could well have been a contender.
Nikon Coolpix A: Expensive, and another APS-C 18mm fixed lens. Quick to move off the list.
Sony RX100: In my view, probably the best of the steroids-enhanced point and shoot cameras, packing a 1 inch sensor into a very compact body and a bright 30-108mm F1.8-4.9 35mm equivalent lens. But, on closer inspection, the F1.8 aperture was only available at the wide end of the zoom range and the lens slowed quickly as the the focal length increased. The RX100 is able to shoot RAW format files which was a plus. But given I was concerned with the noise of the Olympus EPL-1 with its much larger sensor, this was also scratched from the list. Pricey too at some $700.
Various 1/1.7 inch sized sensor cameras: This sensor size is rapidly becoming the new default compact camera sensor. Phones are decimating the traditional 1/2.3 inch point and shoot market and camera manufacturers are responding by introducing larger sensors to differentiate their offerings. These would meet my desire for something compact, but 1/1.7 inch is still a small sensor and would most likely frustrate me in low light situations with too much noise and/or loss of detail.
This pursuit of a new camera (which is increasingly sounding like the tale of Goldilocks testing out the three bears’ bed) eventually brought me to consider the Samsung NX series. The NX series is a line of interchangeable mirrorless system cameras built around APS-C sized sensors. While the first generation of NX cameras used a 14.6 megapixel sensor that failed to set the world on fire, the second generation sported a new and much better received 20 megapixel sensor. The NX lens family included a 30mm F2 pancake lens which was right on target for the focal length and speed I was seeking. And this lens appeared to be the best pancake lens available across any of the different brands of compact system cameras. The term “pancake” is used to describe lenses that have been designed to be unusually compact. For optical design reasons, pancakes are only found as mild wide angles in terms of their field of view. In the case of the NX 30mm lens, it projects just 21.5mm forward of the camera’s lens mount and weights a mere 85 grams.
So when I found a black Samsung NX1000 at $399 run-out pricing at the end of September, I snapped it up. Significantly cheaper that any of the options considered above, but right up there for image quality. Light and compact, but quite well built. It has a small external flash unit that slots into a flash shoe atop the camera, rather than using an inbuilt flash. There is also an optional electronic viewfinder module that also uses the flash shoe for its coupling to the camera. The NX1000 is being superseded by the NX2000 which is essentially the same camera but with more sophisticated inter-connectivity including Near Field Communications. There are also other members of the NX camera family. I should mention that the NX1000 does have inbuilt Wifi connectivity that allows JPEGs but not RAW files to be transferred to a phone or tablet, and for these devices to also remotely control basic camera operations.
The NX lens range is a bit light on at this stage for anyone wanting to make a serious long term commitment to a camera system, but I only wanted the 30mm, so the limited lens range wasn’t an issue for me. Actually the range isn’t that bad – most of the common usage scenarios are covered, but I suspect the range will never be as deep as micro 4/3rds or Sony Nex. Samsung appear to outsource their lens design and manufacturing to unnamed local Korean firms, who, on average, have put together some pretty good lenses at not too silly prices.
I ordered the 30mm pancake when I bought the NX1000, but an ordering mix-up resulted in the lens only arriving in early November. It set me back $299.
I’ve already posted some images using the 20-50mm kit zoom (for example, the Silent Sentinels post) and have found this lens to be no slouch. It’s pretty plastic feeling and light, but image quality is impressive for a kit zoom. Zooms however are slow and I wanted the better image quality, the faster aperture and the compactness that the 30mm lens offered.
Now that I’ve achieved the compact walkabout solution I’ve been seeking (yes, I think I’ve found the ‘just right’ baby bear’s bed!), I’ll share some images from and observations on the combination of the NX1000 and the 30mm pancake.
First up, some sample images I quickly snapped over the first day and a bit after I collected the lens. Please note I shoot in RAW format so these images are RAW conversions done in Adobe Lightroom and adjusted to taste. But they should give a good feel of what the combination is capable of. No brick wall images, I promise!
And my observations:
- This is a really light and portable solution, so mission accomplished on that front. Just need to find a snug fitting camera bag to hang off my belt.
- The NX1000 interface is easy to use. A mix of ‘suck it and see’ and a quick scan of the manual had me quite comfortable with the controls. There is not a lot of customisation available, but given that the NX1000 is the entry point in the NX range, the menu is appropriate for the target audience. The essentials are all there and I can quickly get to the settings I commonly change – ISO, exposure compensation, flash settings and compensation, timer delay for tripod use, focusing mode and focus point. Mission accomplished there also.
- Colours on the NX1000 are nice and natural looking.
- The 20 megapixel sensor produces a little luminescence noise (black and white graininess) even at low ISOs, but this doesn’t increase much at least to ISO 1600. Chroma noise (colour speckling) is well controlled. In practice, with so many megapixels to play with, noise to at least ISO 1600 is no real issue provided the image is correctly exposed. I haven’t pushed past ISO 1600 at this stage.
- The Dynamic Range (DR) feature is intended to help protect highlights from being blown out, which is a major bugbear of digital photograpghy. It appears to do a reasonable job.
- The rear LCD is quite good, with plenty of detail. Using LCD screens in bright sunshine is always a challenge, but there is enough visible to successfully compose shots. I look for a little shade though to inspect captured images.
- The 30mm lens is sharp, really sharp. I’m more than happy on that front. The lens plus a 20 megapixel sensor delivers up plenty of detail.
- Bokeh can be a little unpleasant when seeking shallow depth of field images with bright highlights in the out of focus area behind the subject. This is a challenging situation for all but the best lenses, so I don’t mark down the 30mm too much for this. Take a little care in choosing backgrounds and the bokeh is pretty reasonable. The lens has 7 blades which are rounded to help produce pleasant bokeh.
- The camera has trouble quenching the flash quickly enough to avoid over-exposure when using wide apertures at very short focus distances (say 30-60cm). Stopping down to F4-5.6 fixes the problem.
- The NX1000/30mm lens combination doesn’t offer any image stabilisation. The Samsung NX series (like most of the other system camera platforms except for the Olympus Pens) uses lens based image stabilisation but only in selected lenses (which does not include the 30mm on the basis of keeping the lens compact, nor my 20-50 zoom on the basis of cost, this being the entry level NX offering). Consequently I am finding that I need to keep a close eye on minimum shutter speeds. This somewhat negates the benefit of the fast F2 aperture for scenes without movement. The F2 aperture will still comes into its own though where movement needs to be frozen in not so good lighting – image stabilisation is no help in such situations. I’m spoiled with my Pentax’s in-body stabilisation where I can shoot at a 30mm focal length down to 1/8th or 1/10th second exposures – not every shot but enough to get a keeper out of two or three attempts. With the Samsung, 1/30th or 1/40th second looks to be the threshold for me to avoid blur from camera shake.
- The 30mm lens uses a 43mm filter thread while the 20-50mm kit zoom uses a 40.5mm filter thread. Having bought a polarising filter for the kit zoom, I’ll now have to buy another for the pancake as 43mm to 40.5mm step down rings appear not to exist. Grrrr…..
- I shoot RAW format images rather than JPEGs in order to preserve the maximum amount of information for later editing. The RAW files are proving to be quite malleable in Adobe Lightroom with images responding well to exposure, saturation and white balance adjustments. Lightroom has a lens profile for the 30mm lens which allows the len’s modest barrel distortion to be quickly corrected. However, the profile appears to be a little over aggressive in its correction of vignetting – I’ll probably dial this back for my standard import pre-set for the NX1000/30mm combination. Unfortunately there is not a lens profile for the 20-50mm zoom which is in greater need of distortion correction. Hopefully that will be added some time in the future.
- The camera is slow writing away RAW files to the SD card. You can keep shooting away at a reasonable pace, but there is a few seconds wait before you can review saved images. JPEG’s are much quicker to be written to the card.
- Individual RAW files are in the order of 32-33 megabytes in size. Yikes!
I haven’t loaded the Samsung editing application to my pc so I can’t comment on the app’s RAW conversion and general ease of use. Curiosity will probably lead me to installing and trying it one quiet moment (whenever that might be).
I have tested the wifi connectivity with an Android phone. It requires a couple of Samsung apps to be downloaded from the Google Play Store. They do work, but with a pretty basic set of features. Annoyingly for me, RAW files won’t upload to the phone, but if I was desperate to get an image saved in RAW format onto the phone and/or onto the web, an in-camera RAW to JPEG conversion could be done and the resultant JPEG uploaded. Clunky, but a solution is at least there. Or I could set the camera up to save both RAW and a small JPEG. Uploaded files are limited to 2 megapixels in size which would be fine for social media use at least. At that’s the essence of the provided connectivity: social media users are the target audience. More sophisticated needs would be better met by using an Eye-Fi SD card or similar.
And as I have been shooting RAW, I can’t comment on quality of camera produced JPEGs. If anyone has a burning interest in NX1000 JPEGs, drop me a note and I’ll fire some off.
So, in summary, I’m a happy camper after the first few days’ use and I don’t anticipate that the NX1000/30mm lens combination will end up languishing on a shelf like the EPL-1. Expect to see NX1000 images popping up in future posts.
To finish up, I should add that a cheap adapter sourced off Ebay will allow me to mount all my Pentax M, F and FA lenses onto the NX1000 and use them with manual focusing. That should be quite an interesting exercise. I’ll likely order an adapter and pop some of the results into a post.