There's a new top dog in Samsung's camera line-up. The NX300 boasts a new sensor, articulated screen and faster responses, yet at the same time there's a very comforting familiarity about it -- in more ways than one.
It's on sale now for £599, including body, lens and a bundled copy of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4. It is available in white, brown and black.
Specs and build quality
It looks and feels like a more stylish version of its predecessor, the NX210. They're largely the same size, but the NX300 has a new leather-like finish and a retro silver top plate, which helps it retain the NX210's sturdy, reassuring build quality.
It feels great in your hand, is well-balanced, and ships with a choice of kit lenses -- the familiar 18-55mm zoom or the slightly shorter 20-50mm unit. The former of those, which I used in my tests, delivers a 3x range; the latter, which costs around £30 less when bought as part of a kit, just 2.5x.
They are both i-Function lenses, which sport a multi-function button on the side of the barrel. Pressing this cycles through various shooting options, each tailored to your current mode -- aperture priority, shutter priority and so on. Each of the modes is arranged on a conventional dial on the top of the chassis, and the usual suspects are joined by a new Lens Priority mode.
In effect, it works in a very similar way to aperture priority, but cuts the jargon to present a simple defocus/sharpen scale on the screen, which is controlled by twisting the focus ring on the front of the lens or by dragging the slider on the screen. This makes it easy for novice users to shorten the depth of field and capture more professional-looking shots.
The arrival of the NX300 also sees the addition of a new 45mm prime lens to the range, which currently only works with this model and provides both 3D and conventional 2D stills and video.
Around the back you'll find a touch-sensitive screen -- the first to appear on an NX camera and the first in the range to be articulated -- allowing you to tilt it up and down to shoot from more exciting angles. The strut that supports it has been specially strengthened so it should be able to take the odd knock or two, but it's still easy to tilt it to the exact position you want.
The screen is an AMOLED panel, so it's bright and clear in sunlight, and the on-screen menu is well thought out, responsive and easy to use. In part this is down to the fact that the screen is larger than on most rival cameras, stretching to 3.3 inches, corner to corner. If you don't get on with touch control, you can of course ignore it and resort to the regular five-way hardware buttons to the side.
It's got Wi-Fi built in, which is something we're seeing in ever more cameras. Here, though, the Wi-Fi subsystem has more features than most, with regular emailing, remote shooting and social sharing feature. These are supplemented by automatic checks for firmware updates, sharing to Android and iOS phones and tablets, and cloud backup, courtesy of SkyDrive. It's not compatible with Dropbox like its sibling, the Android-based Galaxy Camera.
It can connect to an existing wireless network, and pops up the regular browser-based login screen you'll have encountered on public networks, which you can tap in your login credentials.
Samsung claims that you can switch on the NX300 and shoot a perfectly focused shot within 0.08 seconds thanks to its re-engineered hybrid auto-focus system. This combines frame-wide contrast auto-focus with a large phase detection auto-focus area to provide more accurate, faster focusing.
It's impossible to measure 0.08 seconds in real world use, but certainly in my tests it was fast and responsive, and when combined with a maximum shutter speed of 1/6,000 second it was easy to freeze fast-moving subjects. Continuous shooting now touches 8.6fps.
At the opposite end of the scale, the longest possible exposure is 30 seconds in regular shooting modes, but for more ambitious and special purpose shots you can hold open the shutter for up to four minutes in bulb mode.
Sensitivity runs from ISO 100 to ISO 25,600, with compensation of three stops in either direction in 1/3EV steps. Low-light performance is good, and you can safely take it to around ISO 800 before you start to notice any grain in your images, and ISO 3,200 before the grain becomes an issue. Even at this level though, the writing on the spirit bottle in the standard still-life test (see below), remained legible.
The NX300 lives up to the promise of those impressive specs, and turned in a decent performance in my tests. I took half of my test shots under overcast conditions and the rest under blue skies, and shot raw files in tandem with in-camera JPEGs. My analysis was performed with reference to both file types. The in-camera JPEGs remained crisp and clean with no hint of heavy handed compression.
Even under overcast skies, it did a good job of retaining a degree of texture and colour variation in the clouds, coping even when the focal point was darker subject matter. Colours remained realistic, and there was no evidence of chromatic aberration where sharp contrasts passed in front of the brighter background.
The same was true under brighter skies, with the NX300 metering correctly for the brighter conditions and reproducing accurate colours even when shooting metallic and highly reflective subjects.
The level of detail captured in the most complex shots was truly impressive and should be sufficient to convince even the most ardent dSLR devotee that mirrorless cameras can now hold their own against high-end snappers.
Individual blades of the marsh grass in the image below are easy to make out as far as the mid-point of the frame as they recede from the lens, and even beyond that the NX300 has recorded a meaningful, useful texture, rather than simply a mess of colours, as I've seen with some rivals.
It's much the same story when you turn your attention to less tonally varied subjects, with the riverbed in the image below pitted with the worm holes, and bird tracks very clearly marked out in the mud.
The Lens Priority system really comes into its own when working with subjects closer at hand, and it wasn't long before I was routinely choosing this over traditional aperture priority as a simpler route to shortening the depth of field in my pictures. I shot the grave marker below in this mode, and it's very effectively pulled it forward from the surrounding subject matter.
The bundled kit lens isn't a macro unit, and you can't get closer to your subjects than 28cm. However, close-up performance is still good, and even in auto mode it's easy to isolate your subject with a rapid fall off in the level of focus surrounding the crucial point. Zooming in to the focused area reveals a very impressive level of detail retention, as you can see from the 100 per cent crop below.
Low-light performance is impressive, as mentioned above, with the NX300 recording a large amount of data that's not immediately obvious. In this shot of stained glass windows, the windows themselves are perfectly exposed, but the surrounding chapel is dark. Lifting the shadows and blacks in post production (easily achieved using the bundled copy of Lightroom) however, reveals the surrounding pews and walls, showing how well the NX300 performs as the darker end of the scale.
The only real complaint I had was some barrel distortion evident on the raw files, but corrected by the internal JPEG processing. This also highlighted some minor chromatic aberration towards the edges and corners where contrasts were fringed by a third colour. Fortunately, this was only obvious in more technical indoor shots when shooting a target grid, and not when using the camera to shoot real-world examples.
The still-life test really demonstrated the quality of the NX300's sensor and lens combo. Under studio lighting, details were sharp right across the frame. It kept its sensitivity down to ISO 100, and the result was a grain-free, smooth image, in which wood and complex textures were particularly detailed, and contrasts remained sharp.
Relying on the available ambient light caused it to increase its sensitivity to ISO 800 and doubled the length of the exposure, but didn't noticeably increase the amount of grain in the image. As such, details and contrasts remained sharp but, in the particular test scene involved, resulted in slightly colder colours.
Enabling the flash allowed the NX300 to split the difference, dropping sensitivity back to ISO 400, while maintaining an exposure time of 1/50 second. This largely returned the frame to the colours seen when using studio lighting, particularly in the red gamut. The shadows cast by the add-on flash, which attaches to the NX300 using the top hot shoe, were light in this instance, and didn't affect the overall balance of the frame, but when shooting larger subjects face on the effect was more noticeable.
Video is invoked directly using the rear-mounted record button, so you don't need to switch into and out of a dedicated mode. Footage is saved at 1,920x1,080 at up to 60fps. If you've invested in the optional 3D lens the frame rate is capped at 30fps.
You can perform basic editing in place with a simple in and out trim function.
Footage is sharp, with high levels of detail and good crisp contrasts, and the soundtrack is highly detailed. Even with wind cut turned on however, there is still some wind noise on the results if you're shooting in particularly breezy conditions, as can be heard in the footage below.
The NX300 represents a significant step up from its predecessor, yet costs less than the NX210 did at launch. As a bonus, it's bundled with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4, which has to be the most impressive piece of in-the-box software yet shipped with a camera at just about any level. It immediately reduces the effective price of the hardware by £106 when going on the prices in Adobe's online store.
The fold-out screen immediately makes this a more tempting proposition than those that came before it, while its lightnin-fast reactions and effective focusing system give you the best chance of accurately snapping your subject, however quickly it's moving. Low light performance is good and the expanding lens line-up makes for a versatile platform all round.
The flaws are few and fairly far between, and they're minor ones at that, which makes the NX300 a great choice overall. The fact that it's a little bit cheaper than what came before simply makes it all the more appealing.