Saturday, 8 May 2010

NX10: Using the Lenses

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Launched together with the NX10 are Samsung's three lenses, namely, the 30mm F2.0 pancake, the 18-55mm F3.5–5.6 and the 50-200mm F4.0-5.6 zoom lenses.  Presumably, we have all checked out the scientific lab tests of them done by the big sites.  Here we offer some subtle observations about the lenses made during the test period.

Image Quality 

1) The lenses are not of premium optical quality but you certainly pay for what you get.  Images produced by the three lenses are good in the centre but noticeably less so along the edges as shown in the following two photos and the 100% crops from them.

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 _SAM2862crop centre _SAM2862crop left edge _SAM2862crop right edge

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_SAM2165cropcentre _SAM2165cropbasket _SAM2165right edge _SAM2165upper edge

2) Also, the images seem to be a wee bit flat, lacking the same sense of depth as seen in GF-1's and GXR A12's images.  Such shortcomings are less for the pancake lens and more pronounced for the zoom lenses.

3) Barrel distortion is not an issue.  As for shake correction, it gives the user an elbowroom of about four stops down the safe shutter speed.

Bokeh and Focusing

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4) The pancake lens produce image with agreeable – but not the best– bokeh in large f number. As shown in the photo, the background looks more like a mélange of colours which is too melted and mushy.  Not to my liking.

5) On the focusing speed, it is generally fast.  But there are some focusing issues which warrant a separate post for discussion.  I'd like to add a brief note here that the like cameras of NX10 are without a dedicated module to do the focusing and the burden is taken up by the imaging sensor.  The downside is the slower – but bearable in most occasions – focusing speed.  The upside is that the focusing performance is the same for all AF spots across the frame.  So this is give-and-take.

_SAM1667 (Medium) The subject is about eight inches away from the lens, which is the closest focusing distance afforded by the pancake lens.  The AF (both in multi- and single-spot selectable AF mode) struggled a bit in locking the focus probably because the subject was backlit against a untidy background.

6) When using the pancake lens, one thing bothers me: there is no indication of the minimum focusing distance on either screens.  This is inconvenient when the shooting is required to be made at a closer distance.  Of course, to try and err is always an option but guesstimate is not the best option.

Working in Collaboration with the Camera

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7) I do like the ergonomics in terms of the swapping of AF and MF.  The AF-MF button is located where the thumb can comfortably reach, which is made complete with the options of moveable, enlargeable AF spot and the automatic magnified display of the MF spot. 

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The eye sensor is right below the eyepiece

8) The added benefit of the eye sensor makes the toggling between the LED and viewfinder screens for photographing and photo checking swift and easy.  As discussed before, however, it will be nice if the already fast toggling can be made even without the slight lag.  The NX10 is the smartest in this design among the competitors.

R1229637 (Medium)The AEL is right next to the thumb rest. 

9) There is also a handy option to register the AEL button to hold the locked focus.  This is useful in working around the less reliable focusing of the NX10.  However, the locked focus is cancelled each shot.  It becomes troublesome if the photographer needs to take consecutive shots of the subjects at the same distance. 

A suggestion to Samsung is that the focus can be locked once and for all until the next press to turn it off.  For the users, the way out is first lock the focus and then turn the lens to MF.

10) An extra note here is that operation-wise, the GXR's module-swapping way of changing lenses is still missed after having going through some inconvenient moments of swapping the NX10's three lenses.

We will talk about the focusing issues of the lenses in the next post.

Friday, 7 May 2010

NX10: The Tough Proposition of Viewfinder

R1229642 (Small)A body with a hump: necessity or eyesore?

Samsung NX10 is the first camera of its kind which incorporates a viewfinder in the camera body. Some photographers question the necessity of doing this but to me, a viewfinder is necessary for photography.

_SAM2463vf (Large)Using a viewfinder at least looks cooler.

This personal preference is rooted in twenty year of using a SLRs. There are two cogent argument for using a viewfinder. First, a viewfinder allows the photographer to concentrate on doing the technical tweaking for the shots. Just because this is the case doesn't mean that the LCD (AMOLED in NX10's case) screen can't do the trick. But in comparison, seeing the scene through the viewfinder can effectively afford the photographer to feel the scene much better.

The Benefits of the Viewfinder

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This is because the viewfinder offers the man and woman behind the camera an exclusive space to mind their own business and envisage the final image without the interferences of the superfluous elements in the scene or the busybodies' irritating peeks of the LCD screen for what is being shot.

Here, an extra argument relevant to digital camera is that the viewfinder saves the photographer's guesses of colours of the final images under bright lights. By way of the viewfinder, the photographer can tune the exposure to exactly what best suits his or her tastes.

But, to make this arguments valid, the implementation of the viewfinder should factor in several considerations which the NX10 meet only partially.

The NX10's Integrated Viewfinder

RIMG8315 (Small)Bigger external humps?

First, the inclusion of a viewfinder should not stuff the camera body in a way what mums may stuff a turkey for Christmas. Simply put, the viewfinder should not make the camera too bulky which would defeat the purpose of having such a compact camera.

Samsung strikes the right balance between this factor and the useable size of the viewfinder. The fact that NX10 has a lumpy top to house the viewfinder may not suit the taste of some. But, if compared to the option of an external _SAM2543 (Medium) viewfinder for photographers preferring one anyway, the monolithic design is more handy and, in fact, more compact.

Eye Sensor and Toggling

As discussed in an earlier post, there is an eye sensor right below the viewfinder of the NX10. Once it detects an object (i.e. your eye) moving close or away, it will toggle the display between the viewfinder and the AMOLED screen. This is a smart design and saves the photographers the troubles of manually switch between the two displays.

« Fast moving

But there is a shortcoming in this implementation. Although the viewfinder and AMOLED screen toggles on and off almost simultaneously, there is a very short time lag the scene is displayed. If you need to suddenly hold the camera to your eye to shoot fast-moving subjects, say, kids, this lag can screw up your shots.

So, this is for Samsung: there should be an option to turn off the eye sensor and restrict the display to the viewfinder.

Mysterious Behaviours

Properly owing to the screen size difference, the viewfinder (921k dots, same as GXR's viewfinder) doesn't really look as sharp as the AMOLED screen (614k dots) – with the diopter adjustment corrected for sure. But tuned brighter up, the viewfinder displays the image and scene nice enough. On the whole, the top-down order of visibility of viewfinder is GXR's, NX10's and GF-1's.

Another puzzling performance of the viewfinder of the NX10 is that it doesn't brighten up the scene in proportion to the increasing exposure value when the scene is dimly lit.

That is to say, for an adequately lit scene, underexposing or overexposing it gradually causes the viewfinder to display the scene increasingly darkened or brightened up.

_SAM1728 (Small) (2) The scene was displayed in the viewfinder just as this dimly-lit, rightly exposed image looks.

However, for a dimly lit scene, doing the same causes the viewfinder to display the scene correspondingly darkened but NOT increasingly brightened up. The scene will look brightened up in proportion to the exposure transition from a negative EV to the zero EV value. But from there onwards to +EV and even BULB, the viewfinder doesn't oblige to increasingly brighten up the scene.

_SAM1728 (Small)bOverexposing the scene resulted in an image like this. The scene was supposed to look likewise in the viewfinder but it didn't. This doesn't happen except for dimly-lit scenes.

This puzzling performance is the same for the viewfinder and the AMOLED screen. So, there is a bug to fix here.

Bottom Line

Prejudices are personal; so are preferences. But coming from the film camera era, I just find the viewfinder a better instrument for composing and making exposure adjustments for my shots. The benefits are many: the photographer can be more focused on the scene to feel it; the scenes are already framed just as in the final images which is helpful for composition; the camera can be steadied better being pressed against your brow ridge; the bright sun won't blur the visibility.

Samsung made an honourable decision to integrate the viewfinder in the camera body. You know, an extra viewfinder is an extra source of profits. It will not be cheap too. It even seems that the cost is not added on to the price tag of NX10, which is actually very affordable.

Of course, we photographers always wish for a dream camera: Samsung, just try to squeeze the next camera body a bit without taking out the viewfinder.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

NX 10: Picture Wizard, Exposure Latitude and White Balance

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As a supplement to yesterday's post on the menu system, we'll dig into some related tools and a weakness of the NX10.

Picture Wizard

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Functions similar to the Picture Wizard are also offered in the GF-1 and GXR under different codenames.  What makes NX10's stand out is not the gimmick per se but the accessibility and flexibility bestowed by the smart menu system.

The quick accessibility to adjust each of the 12 "moods" under the Picture Wizard– three are customisable – invites the user to really use it.  This function can be swiftly accessed and activated from the quick menu through a few presses on the Fn button and arrows keys.  For this reason, I have found myself using this function more often than when testing the GXR and GF-1.

This reveals the truth that if some functions of a camera are great but we never spend time again with them after the first try, it could be because of their bad accessibility which deters us from using them.

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As shown above, the 9 pre-set "moods" from top-left are, namely, Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Forest, Retro, Cool, Calm and Classic.  Click open the image to check out the effects and you can see what the "moods" can do.  Take for example, Portrait smoothens the contrast; Landscape biases the colours towards green; Calm mutes the colours.  The results are effective.  The only thing is that I prefer the black-and-white images produced by GXR and GF-1 to that by NX10's the Classic mood.  The black elements here look a bit too mushy.

Is this the capability of the sensor?  This brings us to the next issue.

Exposure Latitude

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It was a gloomy, cloudy day when I took these photos.  The exposure difference between the sky and the sandy beach was like 5 to 6 EV apart.  I wondered if using the NX10, I could come up  with an image detailing the beach and the thick clouds in one picture.

But I had no luck at all.  No matter which exposure combos, white balance corrections or picture "moods" I tried, the NX10 failed to capture the images of the same exposure latitude afforded by – boggling to me enough – my GX200.

I tried over 10 shots doing the images both horizontally and vertically, and alternatively with the NX10 and GX200.  The results confirmed the same observation.  This is so unbelievable that I still tend to think that I made some mistakes – fact is, I'm sure I didn't.  The following images done with the GX200 using the WB correction just strike a better balance in the overall details (check out the texture of the clouds and the sandy beach).

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White Balance

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There are several ways to adjust the white balance: by the pre-set WB options like Daylight or Cloudy; by K value; by fine adjustments (called "WB Adjust"). 

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The fine adjustment works exactly the same as Ricoh cameras' WB correction function to give the image some colour tints.  It is like having digital coloured filters built in the NX10.    This is a brilliant idea worthy of a hat tip (to Samsung and Ricoh).  Mark that the GF-1 doesn't have this handy function, and it should.

Another handy function is the one-press button to activate the white balance adjustment option, with the caveat that this button can be accidentally touched on and spoil the otherwise perfect photos.  But when the photographer needs to constantly tweak the white balance to cater for special lighting conditions or effects, this button helps.

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The button is situated on the camera body right next to the lens mount where the middle figure can comfortably reach.  The key can be customised to activate optical preview for the DOF.

As for the AWB, it is quite reliable in capturing the atmosphere of, say, the following scene with yellowish lighting.

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The one-press WB key allows users to really swiftly tweak the colour tone.  The adjusted WB did away with the yellowish tungsten tint veiling the image.  During the testing, I didn't come across any weakness in its AWB function.

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All in all, the smart menu system has made the NX10's great functions of Picture Wizard and WB Adjust more inviting than otherwise.  Again, we feel that the smart menu system of NX10 greatly enhances its ergonomics which is a very important aspect to just any camera.  As I have been saying all along, given the sensors and imaging engines of comparable capabilities, serious compacts of the same class give roughly the same IQ.  So, between a user-friendly camera and the one not so, the winner is clear.

After all, as a street photographer, I always find a camera with better ergonomics catering better for unexpected scenes which can present themselves in any minute.

The NX10 field report is to be continued.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

NX10: Smartest Menu System Ever

Instead of the mystical belief that the focusing speed is the strength of the NX10, I would say that its menu system is simply the most fantastic about it.  In this post, you will be introduced the good things about the menu system which is swift, easily accessible and highly user-friendly.  If you tweak the camera a lot, you will know how useful and helpful such a menu system will be.

R1229611 (Small) Even in the proper menu, Samsung has successful kept the functions in each tab within  the five rows.  That is to say, users don't have to scroll up and down but only shift left to right for surfing through the functions.  This is much, much better than what are offered by its competitors.

The NX10 has a unique menu system which is so well thought-out that the users are actually discouraged to use the menu.  This is not sarcasm.   As the focusing speed is crucial to a camera, the accessibility and user-friendliness of the menu system can also do a big favour to photographers doing photos at critical moments where adjustments are needed.

Fact is, every function on the menu is hidden behind this button or that on which a few presses can recall them.  With a bit getting used to, the user will not be confused about which button is pressed for what tuning even without looking.  This is achieved by Samsung's smart standardisation of the way to adjust all the functions which is by way of the directional keys at the back of the camera body.

R1229637 (Medium)The functions in the menu system can be accessed through he buttons on the back of the camera body.  The arrow keys marked (AF-MF; WB; ISO; Metering) on the big circle button also double as the buttons to do the tweaking.

The turning and tweaking are done by pressing the corresponding button to access the desired function,  the up-arrow key to activate the adjustment options and then the right- or left-arrow key to do the suitable adjustment.  Lastly, half-pressing the shutter release can confirm and simultaneously return the camera to the shooting status.

An Example

Take doing the image format adjustment as an example.

First, press the Fn button to access the graphic menu on which the first function is the photo size.

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Now press the up-arrow key to activate the adjustment options and then the left- or right-arrow key to make the preferred choice. Half-press the shutter release to return to the shooting status.

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This brilliant design for doing the tweaking can easily win over users of Ricoh cameras which, especially in the case of the GXR,  boast the most flexible menu system on earth for tweaking and customisation.  In fact, what Samsung has done is putting all the functions in several quick menus.  Simply marvellous!

Legibility

The big display of the accessed/ selected functions makes sure that the user needs not double-check the setting when the concentration has to be fully on taking the photos.

Another thing to be loved for the NX10's menu system is the graphic interface resembling a 3-dimensional graphic outlook:

R1229588 (Small)When the adjustment is made, the dot on the meter moves according to your setting.  Very intuitive indeed.

R1229603 (Small)The selected ISO displays in the large graphic font, which legibility is the best I have seen in serious compacts or DSLR.

When shooting on the go, such an unmistakeable display of the function being selected really liberates the photographer to focus on doing the photo, especially for photographers permanently at the pilot seat (i.e. on full manual mode).  The NX10's menu system  is an exemplary example definitely to be followed by its competitors.

R1229590 (Small)The exposure value ruler and the exposure combo are shown at the bottom in a way facilitating the checking and tuning.

Also, I especially like the exposure value ruler displayed on the screen.  It is shown in markings more legible than the cases with the GXR and GF-1.  As usual, the activated functions can be called up and, if so chosen,  remain displayed on the edges of the screen.

Eye Sensor

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Adding to the user-friendliness of the function-tweaking layout is the eye-sensor to toggle the screen display between the viewfinder and the LED.  Although the viewfinder is of a high resolution, the larger LED is always preferred when doing the tweaking.  Instead of asking the user to manually toggle the display, the NX10 is built with an eye-sensor right below the viewfinder.  When the user moves the head close to the viewfinder, the sensor activates the viewfinder; when moving away from the viewfinder, the sensor activates the LED. 

The toggling works almost simultaneously.  This convenience is to be loved by every photographer.  You will just wonder why no one has thought about it before.  They should now.

A Function of Note

A function to be singled out is about the video.  No, it is not about doing the video recording.  As we all know, the NX10 can do HD videos which can be used in emergency for doing photographs. 

_SAM1956 (Medium) If the photographer is unsure about the most decisive moment, the video function allows any single clip to be captured and generated into a photo.

After shooting a video, the user can replay it with the camera and capture any of the sequential shots to save as a JPEG image.  The final image is not scaled down in resolution.  That is to say, the images made as such are around 14 MP. 

Certainly the same trick can be done with the post-processing software for videos done by any digital cameras or camcorders.  But the NX10 offers a handy alternative to save the hassles.

If the menu system of the NX10 can be summed up in one word, it should be UNBEATABLE.

The NX10 field report is to be continued.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

NX10: Full Size RAWs and JPEGs

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While more thoughts about the NX10 are being penned,  let the images speak for themselves first. As always, we are not following the beaten track to pixel-peep the images for you. The usefulness of tediously looking into the magnified images for the IQ is not obvious to me. With sensors of roughly the same large size, the comparable serious compacts produce images of a quality good enough to most users. Moreover, as different cameras have their own image characteristics, you will somehow prefer this camera's images to another's. It is more a matter of taste.

That said, looking at the images at full-size or screen size gives you an impression of how you'd like them. Particularly, comparing them for the high ISO results, you know what to anticipate and whether you can use the camera to suit your photographic styles.

So the full-size files are given as follows:

- Four shots were taken with the NX10 in RAW plus JPEG files at similar locations as done with the GF-1 and GXR A12, with roughly the same settings and focal length.  The JPEGs are here and the RAWs here;

- Shots of the same scene taken with the NX10 from ISO 100 to 3200 with indoor lighting, without indoor lighting and without noise reduction, respectively.  These images can be seen here.

When you're there, you may also check out the readily available JPEG and RAW images taken with GF-1, GXR and GRD III.

Monday, 3 May 2010

NX10 Field Report: The Body

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At long last, the photos taken with the NX10 sprawling in the computer have been arranged neat and tidy. We are ready to share with you the insights and findings of our NX10 field report.

The loan items include the camera body and the three lenses, namely, the 30mm F2.0 pancake, the 18-55mm F3.5–5.6 and the 50-200mm F4.0-5.6 zoom. Regrettably, the flashgun was not available for loan this time.

The NX10 is the latest to join the fold of the so-called EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens) cameras, a name which is outright bad taste but increasingly widely known and used. We would rather call such cameras serious compacts.

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Samsung has unequivocally and seriously proved its agenda of owning the fledging market of serious compacts by offering the system at lower prices with complete choices of photographic paraphernalia. On paper, the NX10 is comparable to, if not superior than, its competitors. So, is Samsung set to succeed with the NX10?

We are not going to, and cannot, make scientific laboratory tests of the camera and the lenses. Instead, as usual, we have field-test them and will give you some afterthoughts about them.

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Let's start with the thoughts about the camera body and its ergonomics. As we have been saying all along, the notion of a serious compact being compact is not just for the size's sake. The compact size should come with good, at least not to compromise, ergonomics.

Size-wise, the NX10 measures a wee bit bigger than its competitors, including the MFTs and GXR. But on the hand, it feels much bigger. Unless mounted with the pancake lens, the NX10 with the two zoom lenses doesn't weight R1229629 (Medium)considerably lighter than the smaller regular DSLRs like Pentax's K-x. The culprits are the hefty zoom lenses.

That said, the weight distribution of the camera body is good. But it is definitely not for single-handed operation which is most possible with the GXR among the competitors. Also, the hand grip leans towards mediocre in giving the user the necessary grip to hold the camera body steady with one hand during operation.

As regards the disposition of the buttons and wheels, they are generally well arranged over the camera body. With a bit of practice, the user can reach the right buttons with the thumb and fingers for the desired functions while looking into the viewfinder.

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There is one button which spoils the otherwise perfect design. During the evaluation, occasions of accidentally touching the front button right next to the lens mount were frequent.

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That button can be registered to activate either the optical preview (of the DOF) and the manual white balance. If it is registered for the manual white balance function, the accidental activation of it will result in photos being masked by an odd white balance cast. There is no way to turn off the functionality of the button.

(To be continued)

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Pathetic

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This is off topic.

The Shanghai Expo was open on May Day.  From the news report, it is set to showcase the real face of the modern Chinese comrades.  Judging from the glimpse of some stunting acts of the visitors from Mainland China in Hong Kong Disneyland Park, we can safely forecast the common sights in the expo site for the months to come:

- parents bringing young children to pee on the floor around corners

- some person lining up in front of you is suddenly joined by his other ten friends and relatives

- people unfolding their picnic on the chosen spots

- litters around

- pushing and elbowing and shouting by people trying to squeeze into the jam-packed expo shuttle buses

Equally pathetic from across the ocean is this, which I watched on May Day: