Samsung NX20 Review

 

This week, I’ve been looking at the Samsung NX20.  A Compact System Camera with an APS-C sensor, I look at its features and consider whether this neat little camera will appeal to the market.

Note that the sample images in the gallery above were all uploaded using the camera’s built-in SkyDrive feature, and so are not full-size.  They were all shot on maximum settings, and the original images are much larger.  You can view lots of sample images on the Samsung website.

Dan’s CSC Primer

Compact System Cameras (CSCs) are Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras without a mirror. In an SLR camera, you usually look though the viewfinder, rather than at the LCD screen as this enables you to look though the lens directly with your own eye without any digitisation getting in the way. The mirror prism assembly moves up out of the way when you press the shutter release, exposing the sensor to the back of the lens. Rather clever, and a design which has been around for a long while. However, the disadvantage is that the mirror assembly is rather large and three-dimensional, and makes SLRs big and bulky when compared to compact cameras, where you either look only at the LCD screen, or into a viewfinder which is completely separate to the main lens (mainly now defunct). CSCs have no mirror. This means the manufacturers can make them smaller and lighter than SLRs, as the body doesn’t have to house the mirror prism, and the lens can be mounted much closer to the sensor. The flip side is that you can’t look through the lens directly when composing a shot, and instead look at the LCD screen on the back, or through a viewfinder which gives you an LCD image. The CSCs are in theory capable of the same image quality as SLRs, but in much smaller, lighter housing. This makes them ideal as travel cameras, or for those who don’t like or can’t hold the substantial weight of an SLR. They still offer the freedom of a range of interchangeable lenses, with some able to mount the entire range of the manufacturers’ standard SLR lenses. Not quite an SLR, but far more than a compact; a halfway house that will appeal to many users.

Vital Stats

The full  set of technical specifications can be found on the Samsung website here: NX20 Tech Specs.  Here are the important ones:

  • APS-C Sensor – This keeps the body smaller than a full-frame camera.  It creates a 1.5x crop factor.  That means if you mount an 85mm lens (like the 85mm f/1.4 in the product shots), it acts like a 127.5mm lens as the edges of the image fall off the sides of the smaller-than-full-frame sensor.  What you lose in detail, you gain in focal length.  This is the situation for most CSCs and SLRs as few are full-frame.
  • Approximately 20MP – The 20.3 megapixel sensor gives high-resolution images up to 5472 x 3648 pixels.  While not quite good enough to appeal to serious professional photographers, it’s more than enough for amateur and semi-professional use.  It may even appeal to pros as a smaller backup or travel camera.  The highest-quality image settings are certainly good enough for large-scale printing for wall-hung prints and canvases.
  • JPEG and RAW – If you want to get the most out of your digital photos, you need to learn to manipulate RAW format image files using software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.  The NX20 can record in JPEG for convenience (and smaller file sizes), but can also record in RAW for great post-processing.
  • i-Function 2.0 compatible – Samsung lenses come with a button and a control ring that allow you to set certain things via the lens instead of the camera.  Read more about this unique feature below.
  • 1080p video – The sensor allows the camera to shoot in full 1080p HD video.  Perfect for very high-quality family videos, or even for professional reportage.  Shooting video on a CSC or SLR allows you to take advantage of the amazing range and quality of lenses, and the NX20 is perfectly suited.  I only wish it had a port for an external aftermarket microphone.
  • AMOLED Screen – The NX20 has a moveable AMOLED display, unlike the LCD screen on most cameras.  It’s clear in the daylight and allows you to swivel it for easy overhead and low-angle compositions.  I also find if you move it to the side, it allows more room for your nose while using the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF).
  • Cloud and Social interaction via WiFi – Something the more ‘serious’ SLR cameras have yet to embrace is built-in wifi.  I have no idea why as most pros end up buying a wifi card for use in their studios.  For home use, it makes perfect sense – no more cables.  I cover this a little more below.

i-Function

Most cameras offer the same set of features, and what sets them apart tends to be minute differences in image quality, frame rate and ease of use.  However, some Samsung cameras, including the NX20, offer a system called i-Function.  If you look at a Samsung prime lens (like the 85mm and 16mm lenses in the product photos I’ve taken above), you’ll notice that it has TWO control rings on it.  Prime lenses are fixed focal length, so they don’t have a zoom ring – only a focus ring.  So what is the second ring for?

The second ring doesn’t just control the lens, it also controls the camera.  It’s a very clever extra control surface which allows you to change key camera and lens settings without taking your hand off the lens.  Normally, your left hand is just cradling the lens not doing very much, so Samsung have added this feature to give you more flexibility in how you control the camera, and I LOVE it!  In the product shots, you can see the i-Function button on the side of all the lenses.  You press it to enter i-Function mode.  You can then press it again to cycle through different settings like Aperture, ISO, Exposure Compensation, and Scene Mode.  What’s available can depend on the lens, and is configurable in the options depending on whether you’re a beginner or a more experience photographer.  Once at the setting you want to change, you rotate the ring to change the value and press the button to set it.  Easy peasy!  You can even do it without taking your eye off the electronic viewfinder if you want.

For me, this is the key selling feature of this camera, and you won’t find it on anyone else’s camera at the moment.  I’m right-handed, but I can imagine this will appeal to left-handed photographers who might want to use their left hand for changing settings rather than their right.

WiFi and Social Features

Like many compacts and CSCs, but few SLRs, the NX20 has built-in WiFi.  As you might expect, this allows you to interact with services such as Facebook and email directly, and also upload images via Microsoft’s SkyDrive (a free cloud storage service).  There is also an app available for smartphones so you can transfer images to your phone or other mobile device.  Check the App Store or Play Store for compatibility.  The sample images you can see in the gallery at the top were all transferred to my SkyDrive account from the camera with not a cable in sight.  One thing to bear in mind is that the images are reduced in size for these over-the-air transfers.  That’s not a problem for uploading to online services as you don’t need high-res photos for Facebook, but you’ll still want to use a USB cable or remove the SD card from the camera to get at the full-size image files if you plan on printing them or just storing them for posterity.  Don’t forget that with free public wifi hotspots becoming almost ubiquitous in cities now, you can interact from your camera while you’re out and about – could be handy if you run out of space on your memory card while on holiday!

Focus-Assist

Another feature of the NX20 I’d not come across before was something called Focus Assist.  When manually focusing on something, you can set the camera to digitally zoom in to 1.2x, 1.4x… up to 2.0x when you move the focus ring.  This means you can more clearly see what you’re trying to focus on to make sure it’s clearly in focus before you take the frame.  Normally, digital photographers take the shot, then zoom into the picture they’ve taken to see if the focus is correct.  When using a tripod, that’s fine, but when shooting free-hand if the focus is not correct, you’ve probably moved since taking the shot and so need to start again.

It’s a nice feature in theory, but I found it a little tricky to use in practice.  First of all, it’s always-on or always-off, so the camera zooms in when you focus, even if you don’t need that feature at the time.  Secondly, when the lens is set to Auto / Full-Time Manual Focus (as opposed to fully manual), the camera zooms for you to focus, but then doesn’t zoom out until you’ve pressed the shutter button.  Consequently, if you want to focus and then reframe, it’s difficult to do that with the view zoomed in as you can’t see the whole shot any more.  There’s probably a way to do it, but it wasn’t immediately obvious to me as an experienced photographer.

While I’m on focus, I was slightly disappointed by the auto-focus performance, particularly in low light.  Two of the lenses I had were fast primes (an 85mm f/1.4 and a 16mm f/2.4).  The advantage of fast primes is being able to shoot in very low light using a higher ISO – with a 1.4 you should be able to shoot in candlelight without any camera shake using a wide-angle prime, and in dim indoor lighting with a longer prime.  However, I found I couldn’t because the camera just couldn’t find focus in those conditions, and I had to focus manually.  For the price of the body, I had expected comparable performance to the low-mid Canon and Nikon SLRs, but sadly the NX20 doesn’t quite measure up.  In better lighting, the NX20′s auto focus performs very well.

Price

Sit down.  The NX20 body in a kit with the 18-55mm basic zoom  lens (the middle-sized of the three in the gallery) RRPs at £899.  And you’ll want to get another lens because the 18-55mm is a bit…..cheap.  The huge 85mm f/1.4 you can see in the product shots is an AMAZING lens which retails at around £600-700 (says Google Shopping).  I’m a big fan of prime lenses for their wide apertures and the way they encourage creative composure, and this is one of the best ones I’ve used.

Now, the RRP of the kit is, as with most cameras, higher than you will actually pay.  Expect to fork out around £500-600 for the kit (on Amazon for example).  You’ll then also need to budget for one or two extra lenses if you’re serious about owning this camera.  I don’t know why they bundle such a capable body with such a cheap lens – it’s like putting budget tyres on a Ferrari.  According to Samsung’s website, there are currently eight NX lenses available.  I can’t see the 85mm on their site anywhere though, so there may be more coming.  What you need in terms of lenses will depend on what kind of photography you want to do, but a good starting setup is a wide-to-mid zoom (like the 18-55mm), a wide or mid prime (like the 16mm or 85mm shown here) for portraiture, landscapes and architecture, and a telephoto prime or zoom for wildlife, sports etc.  All of those are available for this camera – just look at the link above.

There are many other accessories available too, so you can build up your kit with a hotshoe flash, for example.  There are three available, and range from £130 to £230.  There is also a range of filters, cases, batteries and so on.

Verdict

The NX20 does have a few features which set it apart from other CSCs and SLRs.  The focus-assist zoom is very interesting, the wifi features are very useful, and the i-Function button is superb.  However, the autofocus performance and poor kit lens let the camera down.  If you’re looking to move up from a compact and learn some photography skills, but don’t want an SLR, then this is one of the best CSCs around.  It would also be perfect for a couple, one of whom is into photography, and the other just likes taking snaps – in the ‘Smart’ and scene modes, the camera is just like a very good compact.  The Samsung NX20 is awarded the CDW Silver Award – an excellent 4/5.

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