Digital SLRs are quickly becoming a tool limited to professional and enthusiast photographers. For everyone else, there's mirrorless -- compact, powerful, lightweight cameras with large imaging sensors and interchangeable lenses. Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and recently Fujifilm have dominated the market, but there's a new player. The NX30 is the first serious mirrorless camera that Samsung has made, and it shows.
What Is It?
Samsung has had half-a-dozen mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras before in its NX camera line-up. The $1099 NX30 is the new top dog, joining the arty NX300 and entry-level NX1000, and inheriting its position from the now discontinued NX20. It's competing in a crowded market, coming up directly against the $1699 Fujifilm X-T1, $1599 Olympus OM-D E-M1 and $1099 Sony a6000.
As with previous top-level Samsung mirrorless bodies, the NX30 mimics a traditional digital SLR, with an offset lens mount, large handgrip, pentaprism-esque bulge at the top of its body, top-mounted dials and controls distributed across the rear and top plates. Viewed front-on, it's not too dissimilar to the minute Canon 100D, which is the smallest traditional digital SLR on the market. At 127 x 96 x 58mm, it's both wider and taller than the 117 x 91 x 69mm 100D, but it wins points in the crucial dimension of thickness -- the NX30 is a full centimetre thinner, with no bulky internal mirror taking up space. In height and width, the NX30 is as large as some enthusiast digital SLRs like the Nikon D5300.
Being a mirrorless camera, the Samsung NX30 has an electronic viewfinder rather than an optical one; it uses a 2.4m-dot LCD panel, and the viewfinder itself is articulated across a 90 degree range of motion -- you can pull it out from the back of the NX30 by around an inch, then swivel it until it points directly upwards. The same is true of the 1.04m-dot 3-inch touchscreen AMOLED rear display, which can be flipped out from the camera's left side and tilted vertically. With both of these features in play, the NX30 becomes especially capable when mounted on a tripod -- no more crouching or bending over to look through your DSLR's OVF.
The rear of the NX30 houses most of the camera's controls, although the top plate also has a mode dial, drive mode selector and the combination power-shutter button. The controls themselves are laid out in a pretty standard fashion -- anyone who has used a mirrorless or DSLR camera before will pick up navigation easily. All of the buttons' effects are replicated with onscreen cues in the menu system, so you're able to heavily use the touchscreen if you so desire. I'm not usually a fan of touchscreen displays on cameras, but Samsung's tabbed menu system and clearly laid out quick menu function does make it tempting to just tap the screen until you get to the setting you need, then use a control dial for finer adjustment.
The enthusiast aim of the NX30 is evident in that it has two control dials -- one around the five-way navigation pad on the rear, and one directly behind the shutter button. This is a godsend for anyone who enjoys shooting in manual mode; the ability to change aperture and shutter speed independently without having to hit a secondary button simplifies the process greatly. If you're a newbie, Samsung's hand-holding automatic and scene modes do a good job, but I get the impression the NX30 is made for someone a little more demanding.
What Is It Good At?
When it comes to actually taking photos, the Samsung NX30 is generally a powerful and capable tool. Picking it up, my first impression was how light it was compared to the Fujifilm X-E2 I was also holding. At 375g, the NX30 feels lighter than it should be, but it's reassuringly sturdy and has a body mostly made of strong polycarbonate over a metal internal frame. For most of my shooting, I used Samsung's 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS kit lens (included in the $1099 price tag), with a few quick trials of Samsung's NX 10mm fisheye and 85mm f/1.4 prime portrait lens.
As with most other APS-C sensor mirrorless and mid-range digital SLR cameras, the Samsung NX30 is a perfectly capable camera in anything up to the most demanding lighting conditions. Indoors, in dim light, the slow f/5.6 maximum aperture at 55mm on the kit lens does mean that the NX30 has to ramp up the ISO by a stop or two if you're zooming in, but unless you're shooting a candlelit birthday party or romantic dinner scene, the NX30 is a camera equally at home in bright outdoor daylight or twilight and late afternoon settings. With a native ISO range of 200-25,600, there's plenty of room for movement in the NX30's digital sensor gain. In practice, I found it perfectly usable up to ISO 6400, with the higher 12,800 and 25,600 settings likely usable for small prints or online publishing.
The NX30's APS-C sensor is a 20.3-megapixel one, producing digital images of 5472x3648 pixels. This is smack bang in the middle of the current range of APS-C enthusiast sensors, which range from Fuji's 16MP X-T1 and X-E2 up to Nikon and Sony's 24-megapixel D5300 and a6000. You'd be fine printing images up to A3 and above from the NX30's files without hitting the detail limits of even the kit lens.
For the most part, focusing speeds are great. On-sensor phase detection and contrast detection makes the NX30 a capable piece of equipment in anything up to the darkest lighting, where focusing can get slow, but it was never inaccurate, even when we were using Samsung's 85mm f/1.4 prime at its shallowest aperture.
The 18-55mm kit lens isn't a stellar performer, but it focuses quickly and quietly and doesn't hunt in difficult lighting. My test sample was slightly soft in the corners at maximum apertures, although stopping it down to f/9 or f/11 produced appropriate results that I was happy with. The optical image stabilisations works well and kicks in smoothly, and did job of eliminating any shakiness in my hands -- the vast majority of my photos were free of blur even at lower shutter speeds. As kit lenses go, Samsung's 18-55mm is pretty good; I prefer it over Canon's and Pentax's basic out-of-the-box offerings.
For the most part, I like the images that the NX30 produces. At higher ISOs things start to fall apart somewhat, but for the casual and semi-enthusiastic photographer, the NX30 is entirely adequate. It's largely competitive with digital SLRs in its price range, and you need to step up to a semi-pro crop DSLR or full-frame camera to get a noticeable increase in image quality.
Throughout my testing, I was impressed at the brightness of the NX30's OLED display. The EVF is okay -- more on that later -- but the 3-inch screen is incredibly bright and does an excellent job of showing you what you're aiming at even outdoors in bright light. There's a downside to this, with battery life taking a hit, but if you're trying to capture a landscape shot at midday, the NX30's screen does come in handy.
If you're into panorama photography, the NX30's tilting EVF and screen really do come in handy with the camera mounted on a tripod. During most of my time with the NX30, I had it mounted on a cheap Inca 531 tripod -- more than capable of holding the camera's sub-500g weight steady during slow-shutter timed shots. With a high-quality wide angle prime, I could see myself taking the NX30 out for some early morning sunrise photos.
I also took a few photos directly comparing the sensors of the Samsung NX30 and the Fujfilm X-E2, shooting both at reasonably small apertures to eliminate as much difference between lenses as possible (the X-E2 had the well-regarded 23mm f/1.4 prime mounted). Both cameras were set to output super-fine JPEGs in their standard colour modes; white balance was left on auto but shutter speeds, aperture and ISO were otherwise identical shot-for-shot. Photos have been cropped to 16:9 and resized to 1280x720 pixels.
In the following photos, the Samsung NX30's out-of-camera photos are on the right, and the Fuji X-E2's are on the left:
What is evident from the comparison above is that when it comes to dim lighting -- the ISO 3200 photos of the wine barrels indoors -- the Samsung NX30 doesn't have the same amount of dynamic range in both highlights and shadows as the Fuji, and displays a little more chrominance noise in the meantime. It also tends towards slightly warmer white balance with more magenta, but under ideal conditions -- the landscape winery shot -- there's almost no difference in image quality.
What Is It Not Good At?
Video out of the NX30 is nothing special -- the camera can push out 1080p video at up to 50fps, but there's no high frame rate option. Video is OK, but I found a small amount of moire on some complex patterns, and the stereo microphone wasn't able to properly pick up the (admittedly extremely loud) noise of a twin-prop airplane without distorting. You can capture video at up to 20 times normal speed, but you'll run the battery down before getting too much video that way. There is an intervalometer for easily recording a series of photos for creating a timelapse, but no in-camera creation options for said video.
What is concerning about buying into the NX30 and Samsung's NX camera line-up now is the relatively small range of lenses available. Only 14 lenses are on offer at the moment from Samsung, and some of those have clashing focal lengths. Samyang makes half a dozen NX mount prime lenses -- and some of those have a great value-for-money reputation -- but the major third-party makers in Sigma and Tamron are, for now, quiet on Samsung compatibility. Time will tell whether the NX mount gains popularity amongst third-party lens manufacturers, especially as the Pentax brand shuffles out of the limelight, but for now, I wouldn't recommend the NX30 to anyone who wants to buy several high-quality pieces of glass for their camera. This will change with the introduction of the new 16-50 f/2-2.8, which is by all accounts an excellent zoom.
The NX30's electronic viewfinder is also a bit hit-and-miss. It's technically capable -- with a reasonably high resolution panel, and the ability to tilt across 90 degrees of motion -- but its level of magnification isn't great. There's a slight tunnel effect as you stare down the viewfinder to look at the panel, and the protruding rubber eyepiece means resting your eye to see one part of the display sometimes blocks another part from view. I prefer the Fuji X-T1's larger EVF -- for the time being, it hasn't been equalled by another mirrorless camera.
What the NX30 does do very well is share your images. Integrated Wi-Fi means you can push photos from the NX30 to any iOS or Android smartphone or tablet (no Windows Phone, no BlackBerry OS) using Samsung's Smart Camera app. The process is very simple, too -- switch the NX30 to 'Wi-Fi' on the mode dial, or select Share in the playback menu over a JPEG (RAWs aren't supported, although you can process them to JPEG in-camera and send them). With the app installed on your mobile, follow the instructions, and a few seconds later you'll have a full-size file shared to your phone's gallery. The initial setup process is a bit finicky, but once you have completed it, it's almost hands-free from the next time onwards.
In the same vein as Wi-Fi photo sharing, you can use the NX30 remotely through the app -- controlling its various manual settings and firing the shutter remotely. If you have the camera in an awkward position, using your smartphone as a handy wireless shutter release is convenient. It's not a ground-breaking feature, but at the same time Samsung has done it better than we've seen from competitors before. This is one of the times that being a technology company rather than a camera company has worked in Samsung's favour.
Using Wi-Fi, and using the NX30 in general, does seem to suck through the camera's 1410mAh battery very quickly. In a heavy day of shooting and messing with settings and trying out Wi-Fi, I managed to get my test NX30 down to sub-30 per cent before lunch. The battery is CIPA rated at 360 shots, in the ballpark of most of Samsung's mirrorless rivals, but using the extra features that Samsung is relying on for a point of difference really does drain those precious electrons.
Thankfully, the NX30 charges over its USB port, so if you have a backup battery handy -- I used my faithful Xiaomi 10400mAh cell -- you're set. The ability to charge from USB like a smartphone or tablet will also come in handy for travellers, and might just tip the scales in the NX30's favour over another mirrorless competitor (come on Fuji, lift your game!).
Should You Buy It?
If you're looking for a new camera, and having a mid-range, compromising camera able to capture detailed and high quality images while remaining light and portable sounds good, the Samsung NX30 is worth your attention. It is a long way from perfect, with my chief complaints being its poor battery life and the mediocre electronic viewfinder, but it's competitive with other mirrorless cameras and comparably-priced digital SLRs.
Given that the NX30 is the first mirrorless camera that Samsung has properly paid attention to, this is an achievement. If you buy the NX30, you'll have a perfectly adequate and capable mirrorless camera that should stand the test of time. When it comes to upgrading a few years down the line, we're confident that Samsung will have made significant all-round improvements to its NX cameras, including adding more lenses -- the NX30 is a good first step.
Campbell Simpson travelled to Tasmania as a guest of Samsung Australia.