The Samsung NX30 is a very affordable, DSLR-like mirrorless camera with a lot of features and a lot of promise. It's Samsung's number two camera in terms of "levels" (much like a 5D would be second to the 1D in Canon language) and is designed to appeal to an emerging photographer as well as the everyday user (like mom or pop), but is it be a camera worth considering for anyone semi-pro and above?
The camera is designed with a very heavy nod towards DSLR fans. Even if many can now argue that the DSLR isn't necessary for quality images or photographic experience, many novices still associate quality with a certain camera "look." That clearly hasn't been ignored here, and the layout of buttons, dials and the grip borrow heavily from successful DSLR designs from the past several years. The body is small and light weight but manages not to feel cheap. Quite the opposite really, as the grip and lenses I tested it with feel great. The rubberized texture of that grip actually covers most of the camera body, making it pretty difficult to drop if you are afraid of it slipping out of your hand.
The location of the triggers, switches and buttons is easily understood and similar to a Canon body with the main shutter up front with a dial right behind it, a main settings dial behind that, and a scroll wheel on the back of the camera that controls various functions such as ISO and white balance as well as aperture if you're in Manual mode.
Samsung thankfully did not follow in Sony's footsteps with their back screen design as this is exactly the kind you will find on a the Canon amatuer series of cameras (all the way up to the 70D). Why is this better? Because even though you can use both styles (the tilt up from Sony and the flip-out from Samsung) from directly behind the camera at any angle, you can't use Sony's design from the side or from the front, angles that are enormously useful in video or architecture photography. So thank you, Samsung, for getting this right.
This aforementioned tilt screen is a touch screen, which I'm finding I miss each time I come across a mirrorless system that lacks it. It is considerably easier to fly through menus using touch rather than relying on arrow buttons, and that truth is also the case with Samsung. On the main electronic viewfinder mode, you can tap the top of the screen like on Android devices to bring down a menu that lets you know the camera's current settings and allows you to adjust brightness. This is great, except you can't change any settings from here. It's nice to get a quick view of what you have set, but annoying to have to flip back and go into the menu to adjust something like movie size or image quality.
Also unfortunate is although the touch screen helps, the menu system is puzzling and viewing taken images is also bizarre. It's difficult to find what you're looking for in the menu, and going into replay mode had me truly confused. It appears the camera defaults to grouping images and videos together into "folders" that then can only be viewed together. Images that are grouped seems to happen if the photos were taken within a few seconds of each other. If you have used most cameras, what you will find is you can quickly scroll around to see all images on a card. With the Samsung, this folder-in-folder system confuses the issue and slows down viewing by a considerable margin. I'm not sure why they implemented it, but it was easily the most frustrating part of the menu system.
I also found the operating system a bit slow to start, taking a few seconds from off to on before allowing me to take a photo. If you are trying to conserve battery life while moving around with this camera by having it off most of the time, the delay of turning it on is just long enough for a moment to pass and for you to miss the shot. That said, the battery life with this camera is pretty impressive. I have only charged it a handful of times over the past month I've regularly shot with it and it has never died on me.
Samsung put a lot of advertising stock in the camera's somewhat unusual design feature: a telescoping viewfinder. This, much like some of Samsung's phone innovations (like the hover over phone feature), is something that sounds cool on paper but has nearly no practical use in the real world. The angles that the viewfinder telescopes don't really make using it any easier (it's somewhat limited), and any time I might use the feature, I would more likely use the tilt screen.
While I'm talking about the viewfinder, I do want to address the way the camera diopter works. Though you can manually adjust the focus of the diopter, never once did I look through the viewfinder and find that the scene was out of focus. About a second later, it seemed like the EVF adjusted to my eye and suddenly things became clear. I'm not sure what is going on, but in addition to my own eye needing to focus, it appears the EVF also tries to focus on my eye. What we end up with is an EVF that is mildly irritating to use and much slower than a typical viewfinder. The experience was such that I often didn't even bother with it, opting to use the tilt screen nearly exclusively.
Samsung chose to gie the NX30 a whole lot of connectivity options, which is right in line with what Samsung tends to do with their whole electronics line. The camera has both WiFi and NFC connectivity and is designed to work really well with Samsung or other Android tablets. It can connect with an iPhone, but the current version of iOS doesn't do very well with switching between WiFi channels and of course down't have NFC, making the process a bit clunkier. I tested the NFC on my Android-powered Nexus 7 and have to say it wasn't a awesome experience, but it was tolerable. It wasn't super easy to connect to the camera with my tablet and the connection kept dipping in and out. I don't fault Samsung for this, I just think it's a limitation of NFC technology. The WiFi control is interesting, and works a lot like a Camranger if you have ever used one of those. The Samsung app allows full control of the camera from a tablet... but at the cost of using the camera manually. Unlike with a Camranger, the NX30 and Samsung app force you to pick between wireless control and physical control. If your camera is connected to your tablet, none of the buttons on the camera work and all the viewing options are 100% transferred over to the tablet.
I've been a fan of Samsung's mirrorless autofocus technology for quite some time, in past experiences finding it to be among the fastest and most reliable of its competitors. The NX30 is another fine example of their tech, and there were few situations I can recall where the camera did not immediately and accurately find a focus point. Any problems I encountered seemed to be more of an issue with the lens than the camera, since every time I encountered some problems with dark spaces or contrast points, a quick lens swap from one to the next fixed it.
Speaking of lenses, I asked Samsung to forgo the kit lens and send me what they considered to be their cream of the crop: the glass options they thought were the best they produced (Samsung is 100% making their own lenses). What they sent was the 85mm f/1.4 and the relatively new 16-50mm f/2-2.8. Of the two optical options, the 85mm was far and away superior. Though the wide angle of the 16mm was appreciated, the lens has chromatic aberration and focusing problems. When I was referring to switching a lens, I was saying I would swap the 16-50mm for the 85mm and find any problems with focusing speed or accuracy resolved. That's not to say it's a flawless lens, but the Samsung 85mm f/1.4 is likely the best lens they make and is most certainly no slouch. It just might be a bit long after taking into consideration the crop factor of the NX30's APS-C sensor.
Up to this point, I was really not seriously let down by any particular feature, the build quality or the layout of the buttons and menus. What did put a pout on my face was the image quality- it's just... average.
The NX30 looks pretty great in optimal light and between ISO 100 and 800. However, once you start to test the sensor with what is arguably a pretty pedestrian ISO 1600, image quality starts to plummet dramatically. Anything past 6400 ISO is so noisy, it's not worth shooting there. This, I believe, is a perfect example of what happens with low-light performance in APS-C sensors. Some manufacturers certainly do a better job at this (like Fuji and even Canon does a better job than the Samsung), but it's simply one of those things that camera manufacturers learn over time and with significant development. Samsung is relatively new to the mirrorless game when compared to other camera brands who have been present for considerably longer (though they are doing quite well at #2 in sales in the category), so this is to be expected.
Below are, in order, samples taken at 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800 and 25600 ISO (the max).
The dynamic range of the camera is pretty limited. You can get about two extra stops out of an image if you're pulling shadows, and about one if you're dropping highlights. So, bear in mind that if you blow out any area of the image, it's probably not recoverable in post. This camera requires you do your utmost to get it as close to properly exposed in-camera as possible. Though the sensor is capable of showing what is hidden in heavily underexposed areas, it's not at all what anyone would consider usable.
All that said, when the camera is functioning at ideal ISO, the images you can produce look on par with industry leaders. The camera, at least when I'm out trying to take pictures, was easy to use and didn't frustrate me in any way- critical when I'm trying to work with models or run around an event. The shutter speed was fast and reliable and even in burst mode most, if not all, images came out looking sharp.
Video quality is pretty average, but you can record 1920x1080 at 60p, which is more than many cameras can say these days. The autofocus is less reliable in video mode, but it's manageable (and if you're shooting video I don't recommend autofocus anyway). The record button allows you to start and stop in the same recording file, which is likely an addition made for soccer moms who just want to make quick home movies. Nifty for some, but not very useful for me. I'll stick with other choices if you're planning on going for a camera that excels at video as this one just nails a "solid," not a "great."
What I liked:
- Body design
- Light weight
- Tilt screen- it's a touch screen as well which is great
- Button arrangment
- Connectivity options
- Long battery life
- Auto-share to phone (sends images automatically)
What could use improvement
- Menu is difficult to interact with (they should take a page from their mobile division here)
- Weird playback system
- Bad high ISO performance
- Limited dynamic range
- Quality of connectivity options no better than other industry choices (and often just as unreliable)
The Samsung NX30 gets a heck of a lot right, but stumbles when it comes to options that advanced amatuers and professionals are looking for. This does make sense from Samsung's perspective, since there are far more consumers and entry-level users than not. The camera is clearly aimed at being easy to use while still offering pretty good image quality and a few high-level lenses. Right now, it's difficult to recommend this camera over a Sony or Fuji option because both competitors do better in categories that matter to pros and advanced amatuers. If Samsung were to up the quality of their sensor, offer more options for more advanced users and increase the diversity of their lens lineup (especially fast primes), we might have a competitor in the coming years. For now, keep your fingers on Samsung's pulse for something more suited to something that is better at growing with you as a budding or growing professional.