Samsung NX500: Great image quality; comes with 'quirks'

Photo: Ng Cheng Kiang
PHOTO: Ng Cheng Kiang

In a crowded camera market - the "big two" makers, Nikon and Canon, dominate the market for digital single lens reflex (DSLR) and compact cameras, while some smaller players like Fuji, Olympus and Sony dominate the "mirrorless" sector - Samsung is probably not a name that comes to mind when one is shopping for a digital camera. But their small line-up of mirrorless and compact cameras offer an alternative to the more dominant and well-known brands.

The NX500 is Samsung's latest addition to their camera line-up, targetted at the "advanced amateur" photographer who wants something more advanced than a compact camera and interchangeable lenses without the bulk of a typical DSLR setup.

The camera features a 28.2-megapixel (MP) APS-C-sized back-side illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor - the highest resolution available in APS-C sensors so far.

Weighing in at just 286g for the body, it's lightweight, but still has a sold feel in the hands.

The back of the body is dominated by a three-inch Super AMOLED touch screen for composing and reviewing your shots. Unfortunately, the camera didn't come with an electronic view finder (EVF). The screen has a resolution of 1,063,000 dots and is articulated, so you can flip the screen up and down to aid your composition.

For selfie lovers, the screen can even be tilted upwards to face the front so that you can take 28MP selfies or wefies with ease!

The controls are pretty well laid out, with the typical "PSAM" mode-selection dial, command dial and shutter release on the top plate, alongside the "Mobile" and AEL (auto exposure lock) buttons. (PSAM refers to programme - or auto - mode, shutter-priority mode, aperture priority mode, and manual mode.)

The rest of the controls are at the side of the LCD, behind the camera, consisting of a D-pad, a few other buttons and another command dial. The front and rear command dials work pretty much the same way as those on a Nikon DSLR, which means I can get used to it pretty quickly since I have been a Nikon user for a long time.

There is a video record button on the side of the body - a rather awkward place to put it. Sure, it prevents you from accidentally pressing it, but when you really need to engage it, it's not easy to get at.

Settings like ISO (sensitivity), exposure compensation, AF (autofocus) and drive modes can be easily changed via the D-pad buttons; others have to be accessed via the function (Fn) button or the "i" button on the lens itself. The rest can be accessed via the reasonably intuitive menu.

To keep things nice and compact, the NX500 does not have a built-in flash. However, Samsung bundles a cute little pop-up flash that you can attach to the hotshoe, much like Fujifilm's EF-X8 that came with the X-T1 camera.

The review unit came with the Samsung 16-50mm f/3.5-4.5 Power Zoom kit lens, which covers a nice, common focal-length range suitable for most people. You can zoom the lens using the zoom buttons on it, or by twisting the fly-by-wire zoom ring. The latter becomes a focus ring if you set the lens to manual focus.

Performance

The camera starts up within a second, so it'll always be ready for your shoots. It might be a bit faster if used with a prime lens, since it wouldn't have to extend the power zoom then.

The three-inch AMOLED screen is bright and colourful, much like Samsung's Galaxy phones in normal lighting conditions. However, in bright, sunny Singapore streets, it becomes hardly visible. This issue is not unique to Samsung of course, and this is where an EVF or optical view finder (OVF) would come in useful. The refresh rate of the screen is very fast, with very little lag, which is a good thing.

With the bundled kit lens, the AF performance is decent in day light. Compared to the Fujifilm X-T1, the AF speed is slightly slower. When light level falls, the camera begins to hunt and sometimes fail to acquire focus. Under the same lighting conditions, my X-T1 didn't have any issues focussing. However, do note that the X-T1 is a much more expensive camera, even though they are both APS-C cameras. 

I also encountered random issues with the auto-focus lock, causing shots to be out-of-focus. I am not sure what could have caused this as I was photographing something static.

At the widest setting of 16mm (equivalent to 24mm on a full-frame camera), the lens exhibits some barrel distortion. Nothing too major here, and this is quite typical of most low-cost lenses. You can see it in the photo below, where the grid lines on the building is slightly curved.

The Samsung NX500 is able to shoot at up to nine frames per second, but that's not a feature I use often. Sports and action photographers would probably find it more useful. I didn't really test this in detail, but when shooting RAW+JPEG, the camera's buffer filled up rather quickly and the camera had to pause to clear the buffer. It should perform much better in JPEG-only mode.Image Quality

Pictures taken by the NX500 and the kit lens have good colour rendition, nice contrast and, most importantly, are sharp. As with most recently produced cameras, the NX500's sensor does not have an anti-aliasing filter, and this probably contributed to the sharpness. The dynamic range of the camera appears to be decent, being able to capture everything from shadows to highlights easily.

One thing I noticed from my test shots is that the NX500's auto white balance (AWB) tends to render colours on the cool side. My daylight shots end up slightly bluish. From the files, I noticed that the camera used a white balance value of about 4,800K, which is lower than the typical 5,000-5,500K used in daylight white balance. Perhaps, Samsung love things on the blue side, something I noticed as well on the bluish screens of Galaxy-series phones. To get around this, it's best to set the white balance manually before shooting, even if you are shooting in RAW.

In terms of high-ISO performance, images are generally usable till about 3,200. Above that, things start to get really coarse. I wouldn't use anything above ISO 6,400 unless I am desperate. ISO 25,600 really looks ugly. Like most cameras, it's probably there only to try to win the numbers game.

Other Features

Most cameras nowadays feature some sort of wireless connectivity, usually via WiFi, and the Samsung NX500 is no exception. With NFC (near field communication) connectivity, all you need is to tap a NFC-enabled smart phone to the camera's bottom, and they'll automatically be paired. You do need to download the Samsung Smart Camera app before you can do anything useful.

For non-NFC phones, there's always the good old way of manually connecting to the camera's WiFi hotspot, then launching the app to control the camera or download images. You can also change camera settings via the app.

One notable feature that really impressed me is that the NX500 is able to connect to your home's wireless network and download firmware updates directly. I have not seen any other cameras do this, and it's certainly something that other camera makers can implement.

For time-lapse lovers, the NX500 features a Interval Shooting mode that can also compile the shots into a single time-lapse movie. Unlike other cameras with a similar time-lapse mode, it keeps the individual images in addition to the final movie. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, of course. With the original images, you can have the option of processing and combining them yourself in the software of your choice if you didn't like what the camera did. Of course, this is at the expense of storage space on your card. At 8-12MB per large JPEG and 35-46MB per RAW file, a card fills up quickly. A 16GB card can only take about 270 shots if you choose to shoot in JPEG+RAW like many photographers do.

My main gripe with the time-lapse feature is the movie produced. Compared to those taken by a Nikon D810 or even an iPhone using iOS 8's time-lapse feature, the NX500's time-lapse is noticeably jerky. Samsung also chose to use the relatively new H.265 video codec instead of the more common H.264, so in order to work with the video or even to upload to YouTube, you'd need to convert it to H.264 first. I am not sure if this is the cause of the jerkiness that I've experienced.

Conclusion

Overall, the Samsung NX500 is a nice little camera to use, if you are able to live with the little "quirks" here and there. If Samsung can improve the AF and AWB a little, it'd be a much better camera. The features are certainly innovative (there's also this auto-beautifying function in the selfie mode, which I did not try), and the image quality is great. What's not so great is the price. With a suggested retail price of $1,159, Samsung faces quite a bit of competition from other, more well-known camera makers.

Ng Cheng Kiang blogs about photography-related matters at Three Guys With Cameras. His close-to-30-years love affair with cameras started when he picked one up in school at the age of 14.

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