Samsung never used to be a big name in film cameras but has become one of the leading brands in digital photography. Ironically, its popular Galaxy smartphones are helping to dig a grave for point-and-shoot cameras – including Samsung’s own. In response, the company is following an idustry trend by focusing on “compact-system cameras,” which feature interchangeable lenses and promise the performance of a grown-up SLR in a small and light-weight body.
The Samsung NX300 is the company’s flagship model of this kind, aiming at ambitious photographers who want more than just megapixels. Because sure, even smartphones snap pictures now that are big enough to print a real-life wallpaper – but if you want a good zoom, play with depth-of-field, and generally go beyond the simple “click!” you may still want to consider a real camera with extra talents.
Or so the makers hope. But they’re willing to meet you half-way: if you like to post your favorite shots on the Internet this very second, straight from the camera, the NX300 can play along. Wi-Fi Internet is built in, and Samsung claims that its camera’s specialty is to “shoot fast, share faster.” True? Well, let’s see…
- 20 megapixel CMOS sensor; 23.5×15.7 mm; 5472 x 3648 pixels maximum resolution
- Samsung NX system lens mount
- HD video recording up to 1920 x 1080 pixels/60 frames per second (mpeg 4, H.264)
- Built-in Wi-Fi sharing via 802.11b/g/n Dual Band
- Autofocus: combination of phase detection and contrast AF; up to 21 active AF points
- Image stabilization: not built into the camera body, depends on lens
- AMOLED display with touch control, 3.31″ (84.0 mm) in diameter, 800 x 480 pixels with 768,000 dots (PenTile)
- Display tilts by 90 degrees up, 45 degrees down; no viewfinder
- ISO range 100 to 25,600
- Detachable external flash included; guide number 8, sync. speed less than 1/180 sec.
- 12 creative filters, 14 “smart modes” (e.g. Best Face, Landscape, Macro)
- Image ratios: 3:2, 16:9, 1:1 in different sizes (jpeg crops)
- GPS: geo-tagging with optional WGS 84 module
- Kit lens: Samsung 18-55 mm (equivalent to 28-85 mm full frame), f3.5-5.6, image stabilized
- Adobe Lightroom 4 software included
- Dimensions: 122mm wide, 63.7 mm high, 40.7 mm deep (4.8’’x2.5’’x1.6’’)
- Weight: 284 g (0.63 pounds) without battery/SD memory card
- Price (Oct. 2013), with 18-55mm kit lens: ca. $800/550 euros
- Full specifications at Samsung.com
The Samsung NX300 presents itself as the perfect upgrade for all photography fans who have outgrown a point-and-shoot camera yet shy away from the size and weight of a classic SLR. Thanks to its selection of different lenses, the NX300 can adapt to changing needs and is always open for improvement. At the same time, the mirrorless design makes it small enough for pretty much any bag and very easy to carry around. Note, though, that it typically does not fit into a jeans or jacket pocket – unless you restrict yourself to a compact, non-zoom lens. Also, Samsung’s NX system is not compatible with the Four Thirds standard or any other, rivaling systems.
The NX300 does not have a viewfinder, electronic or optical. You frame and compose all of your images on the 3.3’’ OLED display, which tilts 90 degrees up and 45 degrees down to help you shoot from unusual viewing angles. This way, you can easily hold the camera above your head and still see what you’re doing – or shift the perspective to knee level without twisting yourself into knots.
The display is touch-sensitive, allowing for quick access of menus and functions with a tap of the finger, just like on your favorite smartphone. The resolution of 800 x 480 pixels may sound low, but the image is crisp and clear – as long as you’re indoors. Outside, in bright sunlight, the display turned out to be a disappointment: comparatively dim, even at full brightness, and lacking in contrast. And if you’re a happy user of the touch-screen functionality, seeing your fingerprints all over the image doesn’t exactly help in framing your best shots.
Wi-Fi functionality is one of the camera’s big selling points. The NX300 can connect to wireless hotspots to send photos and videos directly into the WWWorld, including Facebook and YouTube, without any help from a laptop or PC. You can also pair the NX300 with your cell phone or computer to copy images and videos, saving you the trouble of having to find a cable. And if you happen to own a Samsung TV with “AllShare” built-in, the NX300 can even beam its catch of the day to the big screen in the living room.
Much of this requires many finger taps on the small screen to type in passwords and messages and set up various accounts. For Web sharing, the NX300 restricts file sizes to a maximum of 2MB, automatically shrinking photos and videos as needed. How helpful you find Wi-Fi connectivity will ultimately depend on your personal preferences and usage scenarios. But so be it. The NX300 is certainly prepared to serve all those who can’t wait to hit “send” right after the camera goes “click!”
How I use it
As a multimedia reporter and Übergizmo contributor, I’ve been using a variety of cameras and camcorders over the years. When I photograph professionally, my main camera is a Nikon D7000, but I also like my Panasonic LX-5 as a snapshot companion for everyday use.
This review is the result of two months of photographing with the Samsung NX300. Given the camera’s wealth of functions, I would not claim to know it inside out, but I’ve taken more than 5,000 pictures and dozens of videos under various conditions (feel free to check the full-resoltuion photos here). Most of the sample images you see here were taken in one of the main shooting modes, such as Aperture and Shutter Priority, Program or Manual.
The NX300 comes with a wealth of settings and options, allowing experienced photographers to tweak the camera’s behavior in various ways. You can, for example, adjust the auto white balance preset to make images look warmer or cooler by default. Thankfully, much of this is intuitive and straight-forward, due to a clear menu structure and dedicated buttons for functions you are likely to use most frequently (such as autofocus, exposure compensation and shooting mode).
In many cases, the touch screen offers a finger-friendly, quick alternative to traditional button hunting. Just bring up the menu, tap in your choice, and done. You can even pick the focus point simply by clicking on the part of the image you’d like to see sharp. Similarly, many finger gestures you’ve come to know from your smartphone work in playback mode: pinch to zoom, double-tap to inspect a photo at pixel level, swipe to move from one image to the next.
The kit lens also has an “iFunction” button which offers quick access to settings like ISO, aperture, and white balance. While this is a feature that entirely depends on the lens model, the NX300 generally gives users different ways to do what they want to do. This is nice, as it means you won’t have to learn and memorize exactly one way of using the camera.
People with big hands (like me), may find the NX300 a bit too small for comfort. My right thumb kept hitting buttons by accident, simply when I wanted to take a firm grip. I also took several videos of myself walking around because the recording button is easy to push when you casually hold the Samsung in your (big) hand.
A more serious annoyance is battery charging. To keep the price low – or sell accessories –, Samsung scrimped on a separate charger, meaning you have to refuel the battery while it’s in the camera. With the provided AC adapter, which happens to have a very short cable, this can easily take eight hours. Charging via a USB cable connected to a laptop or PC is nice to have as an option – but it takes even longer.
Initially, I got about 450 photos out of a full charge (OK but not stellar). A firmware update to version 1.30 brought a big improvement, regularly giving me 700 to 800 shots per charge. Unfortunately, the update didn’t fix a troubling issue with the battery meter: in my experience, the NX300 tends to show three bars, indicating a healthy battery charge, until it suddenly moves to two bars and then rapidly drops to zero. That means you always have to remember to charge the NX300 overnight, as you cannot rely on the battery indicator before heading out for a photo session; you might see three bars and still end up with a dead camera after a mere 100 shots or so. Let’s hope that Samsung fixes this issue with a future firmware update.
Image quality and performance
The megapixel race is as old as digital photography. Many people expect to get better pictures simply because the camera captures more pixels. That’s not true, of course. Different factors play into image quality, and the number of pixels is important mostly for image size and how much you can crop out while keeping something that’s big enough for a decent print.
The NX300 has plenty to offer in this respect: 20 megapixels allow for poster-size prints, and you can cut away half of your photo, if need be, and still have plenty of pixels left for smaller prints or Web postings.
Good low-light performance ranks as one of the most desirable features of any camera, as it allows you to keep photographing the way you want even when the sun goes down or your main source of light happens to be a candle. The NX300 does a very good job here. Images of up to ISO 3200 show little noise, in my experience, unless you look very closely or inspect images at pixel level. In many cases, ISO 6400 is perfectly usable as well. You just wouldn’t want to print posters anymore, as these photos begin to show clear signs of grain (or noise reduction, if you rely on the in-camera Jpegs).
For anything beyond casual snapshots, RAW files, rather than Jpegs, are usually the better choice, as you can tweak exposure, white balance and many other image characteristics without any loss in quality. In a nice move, Samsung partnered with Adobe to bundle the NX300 with Adobe’s excellent Lightroom 4 software. While a newer version, Lightroom 5, has been released now, version 4 offers plenty of functionality for even professional use. You can also upgrade to Lightroom 5 for about $80 in the U.S.
It’s disappointing, then, that the NX300 fell short in several key categories. First off, the lack of an optical or electronic viewfinder proved to be a severe drawback in broad daylight. It’s difficult and not much fun to frame a picture on a reflective display in bright sunshine. You can guess, and your guess may be good enough for a quick picture you want to post on Facebook, but it’s hardly ideal for memories of your trip-of-a-lifetime to Hawaii.
The autofocus turned out to be relatively slow and unreliable in a variety of situations. That’s not unusual for this type of camera, to be sure, but still surprising, as the NX300 uses a combination of two systems (phase detection and contrast detection) to promise faster, more accurate focusing. Sadly, I found myself looking at blurry photos more often than I expected.
Admittedly, this is mostly an issue with moving subjects. If you’re taking photos of nature, or people who are sitting still, everything is fine. But action photography is another matter. In Continuous High mode, the NX300 will happily take up to 8.6 pictures per second – but without bothering to adjust the focus. In Continuous Normal, the camera does refocus; however, whenever the subject moves towards the camera, or away from it, the autofocus becomes painfully slow. I rarely got even close to the 5 pictures per second that Samsung promises for Continuous Normal. In addition, in many situations with fast-moving subjects, the autofocus had a tendency to lose track, often blurring the foreground while keeping the background sharp.
This makes the NX300 a relatively poor choice for most action photography – including fast cars, birds flying by, or even just the bike-riding children of friends. It’s not alone in this respect – see my review of the Olympus OM-D EM-5, for example – but this still poses a major drawback in comparison to SLR cameras.
The flash comes as an external unit that is attached to the hotshoe ontop of the camera. It’s nicely compact and small enough to leave in place, even if you don’t always need it. There are many situations when a flash can work wonders, even in broad daylight. To activate the flash, you always have to manually flip it up, though, even if you shoot in a fully automatic mode. Unfortunately, the flash sits so close to the lens that it often casts a shadow. The alternative would be one of Samsung’s optional external flashes, which sit higher.
The 18-55 mm kit lens is typical of its kind: cheap enough for Samsung to bundle with the camera, good enough as a walkaround allrounder lens, but no stellar performer. The mediocre aperture range of 3.5 to 5.6 will push you towards higher ISO settings in low light and can also make it harder to achieve the blurry-background effect that turns a snapshot into a classy looking portrait. At the 18 mm wide-angle setting (the equivalent of 28 mm on a full-frame camera), the lens shows clear distortions, such as stretching buildings and bending straight lines out of shape. Fully zoomed in, you’re only at 55 mm (85 mm equivalent) – which is fine for bringing your friends a bit closer at a party but will often leave you longing for a more powerful zoom when you’re photographing nature, animals, city scenes, and more.
Unfortunately, Samsung’s selection of lenses is rather small so far. There are alternatives to the 18-55 mm zoom, but you’re much more limited than with other systems, such as Micro Four Thirds, which are supported by third-party manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron as well. On the upside, the lens generally delivered sharp results in our tests and has effective anti-shake stabilization built-in, allowing for crisp handheld photos at slow shutter speeds. (Note that you will still face the risk of motion blur when your subject moves.) The NX300 itself does not feature any stabilization, so the task falls to the lens.
If you like to record moving images, the NX300 can be a nice video companion. The articulating display, which flips up and down, makes it easy to shoot from unusual viewing angles to draw your viewers in. Image quality is typical of this kind of camera: you get HD recording of up to 1080p, meaning high-definition videos at the best resolution. You shouldn’t expect professional TV pictures, but the camera does a good job of automatically adjusting exposure, aperture and color balance. To get creative, for example to throw the background out of focus, you can also tweak the settings or control them completely manually.
When filming, the NX300 mostly manages to keep your subjects sharp automatically (watch this video), even though you might see some focus hunting when you’re recording videos in situations with low contrast or busy backgrounds. You may need to switch to manual focus in those cases, and the NX300 can assist by magnifiying the focus point on the display. The built-in microphone records stereo sound and is good enough for basic filming. If you’re more ambitious or need better sound, you can invest in an external microphone which sits in the flash hotshoe and will not as easily pick up camera noise as the built-in microphone.
Once again, the display proves to be a weak spot when you’re shooting outdoors on a sunny day, and the kit lens makes any kind of zooming while you’re recording extremely difficult – as you can see in this video. Since it’s a manual zoom, changing the focal length during the filming tends to result in jerky videos. A motorized zoom, such as the one we tested alongside the Olympus OM-D EM-5, would be preferable, if you’re serious about videography.
By recording in Mpeg 4 (H.264), the NX300 makes it easy to edit videos on a computer. While Samsung does not include any video software with the camera, free programs such as VLC, Handbrake or Apple’s Quicktime can import and work with MP4 files – no need to convert proprietary mpeg files, as is often the case with cameras that record in AVCHD. You can also do some basic editing in-camera, if you want to post a video right away on the Web. However, the resolution is restricted to 320×240 pixels, with a maximum file size of 10MB. YouTube ca. 2007, in other words. So it may be better, after all, to wait until you’re back at home.
The Samsung NX300 is a highly capable all-rounder that has already found many fans. It’s easy to bring along for city walks or travel, makes shooting fun, and mostly delivers pleasing results that you can quickly send out into the world. If that’s all you’re looking for you may be a very happy camper when you buy it.
More ambitious photographers may find the NX300 wanting in certain ways. The lack of a viewfinder, optical or digital, makes accurate framing difficult whenever you’re outside on a bright sunny day. And like many other mirrorless cameras, the Samsung struggles with autofocusing on fast moving objects – particularly when they move towards the camera.
Keep in mind as well: with a point-and-shoot, you buy a camera; with an interchangeable lens camera, you invest in a whole system. Many of the lenses you’ll buy over time are likely to outlast the camera itself. If you have any plans of making photography a hobby, it’s important to look at the whole ecosystem of lenses, flash lights, and accessories.
Samsung’s propriety NX system still feels like it’s in its infancy, offering fewer choices than many of its competitors. Currently (October 2013), there’s not a single zoom lens faster than f3.5, for example.
Ultimately, the NX300 gives the impression of an aspiring champ that isn’t quite there yet – just like Samsung’s NX system in general. If you can live with the restrictions, the NX300 is an attractive upgrade from your old point-and-shoot camera or a very affordable alternative to an SLR. The biggest argument in favor of the NX300 may be its price: For roughly $800 or 550 euros you get a lot of functionality, and even professional photo software – Adobe Lightroom 4 – that would normally cost some $100 extra. All in all, not a bad deal.
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