Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NX500 Puts Samsung on the Map

Some cameras have the power to change the conversation about its manufacturer.  The Olympus E-M5, Fuji X100, Sony RX1 and Sony a6000 are examples of cameras that have each dramatically altered public perception of their manufacturers.  I believe that the Samsung NX500, which was released just last week, will be the camera that puts Samsung on the map.
(Image by Samsung)

Samsung has been producing mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras since 2010.  While their products were capable, providing sensor performance similar to other cameras in its class, they did not offer anything new that would justify migrating to their system from a more established system, therefore they have been largely ignored.  Last year, Samsung released the NX1 which, as you will see, seems to have the best APS-C sensor (mirrorless or otherwise) at this time.  However, the NX1 was priced at the very high end of other APS-C cameras, at $1500 (body only).  A lot of people were impressed by the NX1's specs but were put off by the price.  If nothing else but price, the NX1 is not a camera that many consumers would consider, so Samsung has remained a niche camera.
Enter the NX500. It offers many of the NX1's features -- including its sensor -- in a more compact, consumer-friendly size, at a more affordable $800 (16-50 kit lens included).  But why would anyone consider the NX500?  Here are some reasons:
- likely the best APS-C sensor at the moment;
- may have the best mirrorless autofocus performance;
- lenses generally cheaper, with good quality.
Among the APS-C sensors tested by DXO, the highest-rated sensors for low-light ISO capability are currently the Nikon D3300 and Sony a6000/a5100.  DXO has no plans to test Fuji because Fuji uses an X-Trans sensor which DXO claims makes comparison difficult.  DXO hasn't tested the NX1 or NX500 yet, but I believe that it will have the highest rating for low-light ISO.  Here's why.
On the DPReview Studio Comparison Tool, you can compare the NX1 (same sensor as the NX500) with the Nikon D3300 and Sony a6000.  I also included the Fuji X-T1.  Comparing the raw images at ISO 6400, the NX1 has less noise than either the Nikon D3300 or Sony a6000.  (The X-T1 has less noise than the NX1 but also far less detail, which implies that the X-T1 relies on aggressive noise reduction.)  It should not be surprising that the NX1 would beat the D3300 and a6000 for high ISO capability because the NX1 and NX500 have backside illuminated sensors, which allow the sensor to collect more light.

What about latitude for postprocessing adjustments?  Some sensors have low noise but when exposure is adjusted, there are problems with banding or other issues (e.g. the Nikon D7100).  Until now, Sony CMOS sensors (used in Sony, Nikon, Olympus and Pentax cameras) had a monopoly over having wide latitude for adjustments.  In this regard, it appears that the NX500 sensor also offers latitude that can compete with Sony sensors.  Check out the shadow recovery samples from DPReview.  The recovered shadow areas have no evidence of banding.
There was a famous autofocus shootout by The Camera Store TV between the Fuji X-T1, Olympus E-M1, Sony a6000, and Panasonic GH4.  The winner of that shootout was the GH4, which narrowly edged out the a6000.  How does the NX500 compare against those cameras?  We don't know yet, but here is a comparison between the GH4 and the NX1, which has the same hybrid autofocus system:
The NX1 does have a faster processor than the NX500, so it's possible the NX500, with its slower processor, might not sample the AF points as frequently and therefore might have a slower autofocus system, but the video looks promising for Samsung's autofocus technology, and the NX500 as well.
Compared to other systems, Samsung NX has fewer lenses, partly because there are fewer third party lenses for it.  However, they have lenses in most of the important categories with very reasonable prices (sometimes costing less than manual lenses from third parties):

Samsung NX doesn't have a walkaround zoom (comparable to Sony's 18-105 f4, Fuji 18-135 OIS, Nikon 18-140 VR, Canon 18-135 IS), nor does it have a 35mm equivalent (the closest is the Samsung 20 f/2.8 with 30.8mm equivalent focal length).  However, they have a fast standard zoom that has an aperture of f/2 at the wide end.  They also have the most compact 70-200 equivalent with stabilization for APS-C: the Samsung 50-150 2.8 OIS (with a length of just 6 inches -- even shorter than the Olympus 40-150 2.8).  I think the 50-150 is a significant advantage over other systems because most 70-200 lenses for APS-C are too large for casual users.  Just as importantly, the 50-150 is closer to the classic 70-200 focal length (Canon, Nikon and Sony's fast telephoto lenses start at 70mm, which is around 105mm). 
In terms of performance,  Samsung lenses seem to be able to hold their own against Sony lenses, sometimes being sharper and other times less sharp than their Sony equivalents.  Notably, Samsung primes consistently appear to have good, if not excellent, performance, whereas Sony primes have a wider range of performance, from excellent to poor (as in the case of the Sony 16 2.8).  Below are DXO ratings for perceptual resolution (Pmp) for Samsung lenses, with Sony E-mount lenses for comparison based on the NX20 and a3000 (both are 20mp).  Note, however, that the same lenses on the NEX-7 and a6000 yield consistently lower Pmp than the a3000.  It remains to be seen whether the lenses will perform just as well or better on the NX1 or NX500.

Generally, I choose camera systems rather than individual cameras, which brings up the que​stion, are these merely temporary advantages of a particular camera?  Camera manufacturers leapfrog each other all the time.  The fact that one manufacturer may have the best sensor at any given time is not itself significant.  What I think is significant is the pace at which Samsung has caught up and - for now - exceeded the performance of its competitors, not just in one area, but in several areas simultaneously.  In addition, with respect to their lenses, I think Samsung's advantage may be systemic, at least vis-à-vis Sony.  In particular, I speculate that the performance of Samsung's lenses may be influenced by its longer flange distance.
To be fair, there are several disadvantages of the Samsung NX System:
- Raw support and workflow: for now the NX1 and NX500 raw files are not yet fully supported.  For example, you can import their raw files into Lightroom, but the result is significantly worse than using the Samsung DNG converter.
- Weaker third party support (e.g. flash accessories, lenses)
- Unlike other mirrorless APS-C cameras, it has more limited ability to adapt other lenses due to the Samsung's longer flange distance.
However, other than the last point re adapted lenses, these weaknesses are not inherent in the NX system.  If my guess about the NX500 is correct, the NX500 will help Samsung NX system grow substantially in popularity, which in turn would result in better third party support. 

In summary, I think the NX500 is very appealing on paper.  Of course there is no substitute for actual experience with the camera.  I've ordered one and I will be comparing it to the Sony a6000.
Update: Unboxing and First Impressions
Update: Samsung NX500 Review

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