For those of you who read this blog on a regular basis, you will know that I am a fan of the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless system. For a traveling photographer who does not want to schlep around a lot of (heavy) camera gear with them, it is a decent compromise between size and image quality. Having said that, I sold all of my Micro Four Thirds camera gear a few months ago.
Why, you ask?
It is a great system and it has some excellent lenses… but I am spoiled by the image quality that I get with my Nikon D3s (and Nikon lenses) so I started my search for another compact camera system that would give me better image quality, especially with respect to high ISO and dynamic range.
Please keep in mind that I am not a professional camera reviewer… there are websites such as dpreview.com that have extensive reviews of camera gear. I am a working photographer and approach camera equipment from that perspective. I am more interested in how it performs in the field (i.e. can I create sell-able images with it). I’ve never been a fan of a controlled test environments, therefore, you will not see any brick wall photos on this site.
The search for camera nirvana begins
During 2009, Samsung announced that it was going to launch their new “NX” mirrorless camera system and that they planned to capture significant market share in the first few years. After I picked myself off of the ground from laughing so hard, I gave it no further thought. Samsung made really great televisions and DVD players, but cameras? Yeah, right.
I spent a fair bit of time in late 2011 searching high and low for a new compact camera system that I could take with me anywhere. I do love my Nikon D3s and its image quality, but often it is not practical to take it with me on holiday. I had visited a few photography forums and encountered some diehard Samsung NX system users – they loved their NX cameras and were ecstatic that Samsung had some great lenses to use – and an even better lens lineup was on its way.
Could this be what I was looking for in a compact camera system?
I must admit I was a bit intrigued. Sony had just updated their NEX line of cameras and the NEX-5N and NEX-7 looked really tempting, but IMHO, the system was lacking in small, fast, prime lenses. My goal was to build a lightweight, compact camera kit that I could take anywhere in a small camera bag.
Samsung on the other hand had three pancake prime lenses (16mm f/2.4, 20mm f/2.8 and 30mm f/2), a 60mm f/2.8 macro, an 85mm f/1.4 portrait prime and at least a couple of zoom lenses. What interested me further was that the NX system had an APS-C image sensor (16mm x 24mm – with a 1.5x field of view crop, which is larger than the micro four thirds sensor) that was commonly used in many DSLR’s. So in theory, I could get DSLR image quality in a small package.
As luck would have it, I had the opportunity to acquire the recently released Samsung NX200 (B&H – Amazon – Adorama) at a decent price – it is the latest NX series camera body which features a new 20 megapixel CMOS sensor. I had used an NX11 in the past and was quite impressed with the ergonomics, handling and image quality (up to ISO 800) so I took the plunge into the NX system.
Now, off to Lisbon
My timing for the purchase of the NX system was perfect as my wife and I were about to head off to Lisbon, Portugal, for a vacation and I wanted to as travel lightly as possible.
Here is what I took with me:
All of this fit very nicely into my new Tamrac 5782 Evolution Messenger 2 Bag (including the Macbook Air) plus I had room for a backup hard drive, passports, lens pen, flashlight, lens cloth, cables and an SD card reader. Total weight was just over 4 kg. Wow. My back is really going to appreciate this camera kit.
The first thing I noticed is that the NX200 is very light and small – it weighs less than 200 g. When you put a pancake lens on it, it is hard to believe this setup potentially has the same image quality of a DSLR. The all metal construction feels very solid in your hand.
I am not one to read user manuals in detail, but I have to admit the NX200 user manual is excellent. It is obvious (to me) that Samsung put some serious thought into this as menu items and camera functions were nicely explained in plain English. There was even a tutorial on the basics of photography (composition, aperture size, shutter speed, ISO, etc) which was a nice touch. Well done. I wish other camera vendors put this much thought into their camera documentation.
Samsung has also designed the most photographer centric user interface of any digital camera – and I have used a lot of them. I really did not need to read the user manual to learn how to use the camera. Camera functions are logically grouped in the menus and easy to find. There is even in-camera help available if you do not understand what a menu item does.
Even the typeface used in the menus is really easy on the eyes. There are lots of external controls and the “Fn” button allows you to configure commonly changed items (such as the AF mode, WB, ISO, etc) so you don’t need to dive into the menus if you do not want to. The camera layout just makes sense.
Kudos, Samsung. It is refreshing to see a camera vendor pay this much attention to the design of the user interface.
The rear AMOLED screen is gorgeous – it is clear, crisp, easy to read and much nicer than most rear LED screens found on other cameras. Colours are beautiful and your images will look fantastic on it. I did find it a bit bright at times, but that was useful when viewing the rear screen in direct sunlight.
There is no built in flash, but the NX200 comes with a small external flash that you can attach to the hot shoe port. One crucial item is missing though: there is no Electronic View Finder (EVF) and no option to attach one. I personally think that was a mistake on Samsung’s part as the previous NX100 model supported an external EVF.
The NX200 in use
My wife and I like to do a lot of walking when we are visiting a foreign city. The camera kit (with the bag and Apple Macbook Air) was easy to take everywhere and I could be very discreet in using the camera.
The NX200 uses a focal plane shutter, so it does make some noise when in use, but nothing considered loud which would draw attention to yourself (if you want to hear a loud noise, listen to a Nikon D3s shutter go off sometime). The shutter and auto focus (AF) seemed quick and responsive and I did not notice any significant lag. AF always acquired focus quickly, even when I did some night photography.
I did find myself missing the EVF – I really do not like holding a camera out in front of me, especially when shooting using slow shutter speeds. I purchased a Clearviewer since there was no EVF support – this handy gadget is a decent alternative to an EVF at a fraction of the cost.
One major gripe I have with the NX200 is the RAW file size – they are a monstrous 45MB each. Hello, Samsung? This is the 21st century – ever heard of file compression? Other vendors have been doing it for years, why can’t you?
Another gripe is the write speed of the camera – it is slow. When the camera is writing to the SD card, you cannot change menu items until the files are finished writing. I used a fast UHS-I SD card that helped speed things up, however, if you shoot this camera in RAW, you will need patience.
Samsung has included in its newer lenses the iFunction (iFn) option – this is a button on the lens that allows the photographer to change common settings (ISO, EV, Aperture and WB) by turning the focus ring. While it is an interesting feature, I am not sure how useful it is. If the NX200 had an EVF, I could see the iFn button being of use as you would not have to take your eye away from the viewfinder to change common settings. For me, the jury is still out on iFn’s usefulness.
Image Quality (IQ)
Whether I keep a camera (or not) ultimately boils down to the image quality. In this department, the NX200 (and its lenses) performs very well.
I must admit that I was worried at first about the 20 megapixel count of the APS-C sensor. It seems that most camera vendors are in a megapixel race – and I am more concerned with the quality of the pixels as opposed to the quantity. As you will find out, I was not disappointed by the IQ from this camera. Note that all images shown were shot in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom.
In good light from ISO 100 to 400, the image quality from the NX200 sensor is exceptional. When I looked at 100% crops of images in this ISO range, I was blown away by the level of detail it could resolve. Colour was excellent. With good technique, the IQ from the NX200 is as good as any DSLR I have ever used. And that is saying alot. So I must admit that the NX200 exceeded my expectations in the IQ department at low ISO.
From ISO 400-800, a little noise starts to creep in, but it is hardly noticeable unless you are a pixel peeper. You will not notice the noise in prints.
From ISO 800-1600, there is definitely noise, but if you shoot in RAW and process carefully, the noise is well controlled and can be easily cleaned up in Lightroom or using a Photoshop plugin like NeatImage. I would have no issues making large prints from these files.
I find that above ISO 1600, there is quite a bit of noise creeping in (especially in the shadows) and I would only using this range for small prints or images on the web. With careful exposure, images are useable up to ISO 3200. The NX200 does go up to ISO 12800, but that setting is way too noisy for my liking.
Dynamic range is decent (an improvement over Micro Four Thirds cameras), especially at low ISO, although you will have to be careful not to blow out the highlights. I find that the NX200 metering tends to biased towards underexposing an image (by a 1/3 of a stop) – perhaps that is Samsung’s way of retaining highlight detail? That’s my guess.
The Samsung NX 16mm f/2.4 and 30mm f/2 pancake lenses were a joy to use. I still cannot get over how sharp these lenses are, especially given their size and relative low cost. The 50-200mm f/4~5.6 zoom was very good too. The NX200 did seem a little unbalanced with it given that this zoom is much bigger than the pancakes, but it was nothing that prevented me from capturing some decent images with this lens.
The NX200 has 1080p30 video, but I have not used it as I am only interested in still photography.
Overall, I was impressed with the NX200’s (and NX lenses) image quality. This is quite a feat given its minute size. I guess good things do come in small packages!
The Final Verdict
I can recommend using the NX200 (and thus, the NX system), especially if you want a lightweight camera system capable of very good image quality.
To sum up everything, here is a list of pros and cons:
What I liked:
What I am not crazy about:
The NX200 and its lenses are far from perfect but no camera system is. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by Samsung and their engineering efforts. When handled properly, my NX200 can produce images that rivals most DSLRs. There are a few quirks with the NX system but nothing that is a show stopper.
Distribution of Samsung NX cameras and lenses is sparse, so only the largest camera dealers seem to carry them. Also, wait times for new products (like the 16mm f/2.4 pancake and the 60mm f/2.8 macro lenses) can be extremely long, which often leaves Samsung’s user base a bit frustrated. If Samsung really wants to become a mainstream camera player, they really need to work on their distribution time and network.
The problem for Samsung is that their competition (and there is a lot of it) does not stand still for very long and there are now many camera choices available for people who want to purchase a compact imaging system.
I really hope Samsung continues to improve both their camera bodies and lens offerings. Competition is great for us consumers and Samsung has the potential to capture a decent share of the mirrorless camera market, provided they are serious about expanding the NX system further. That would be a good thing in my books.
BTW, if you love beautiful cities with wonderful people and fantastic food, go to Lisbon. We had a fantastic time there and between sightseeing, eating and taking photographs, it was the perfect holiday!
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