Samsung NX300 Digital Camera Review
The latest NX offers a smart blend of style, convenience, and performance.
By the Numbers
In our standardized lab tests, the Samsung NX300 (MSRP $799 as tested) proved to be a capable performer in all but the most challenging lighting conditions. Thanks to a quality kit lens and a bit of software assistance, its JPEGs are among the sharpest we've seen in class. Dynamic range results were exceptionally good at lower ISOs, and noise was well-controlled up through ISO 3200. Color and white balance were certainly acceptable, if not outstanding, and video performance in bright light was among the best we've seen from a compact system camera. And the downsides? Noise and noise reduction–related smearing become a serious issue at ISO 6400 and higher, and video quality suffers badly in low light.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first: By default, the NX300 oversharpens its JPEG output by about 15%. The upshot is very high apparent sharpness, but at the expense of some ugly black outlines on high-contrast edges that become visible when you view shots at 100% zoom.
But here come Samsung's extremely customizable controls to the rescue! You can adjust the sharpening behavior of each color profile by four steps in each direction, or shoot RAW to control the camera's oversharpnening tendencies.
The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS kit lens we tested is actually a very good performer, at least compared to other similar designs. It's no surprise that it's sharpest at its middle apertures and focal lengths, nor that it produces monstrous barrel distortion at full wide angle (correctable in-camera). Diffraction also kicks in at the narrower apertures, softening shots a bit, so we recommend keeping it in the f/5.6 to f/11 range for maximum resolution.
Bear in mind that the smaller, lighter, and marginally cheaper 20-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit option is also a solid performer. If you can bear to give up optical image stabilization and a little zoom range on each end, it's a good choice to reduce the bulk of your kit.
Noise & Noise Reduction
While some APS-C cameras (particularly those based on Sony's 16-megapixel chip) can produce extremely usable images up through ISO 12800, the NX300's 20.3-megapixel sensor (developed entirely in-house) has a pretty clear cutoff at ISO 3200. Up to this point, noise takes up less than 1% of the average image. Afterward, it immediately jumps to more than 2% and continues to climb to reach almost 5% at the highest sensitivity of ISO 25600.
The camera's three noise reduction settings combat this characteristic to varying degrees of success, but ultimately they can't make the three highest ISO settings usable for more than web display or tiny prints. All three of them leave images largely untouched up through ISO 3200, then apply their smoothing gradually from 6400 through 25600. The lowest NR setting maxes out at 4.12% noise, while the highest ends up at 2.93%. Both look terrible at ISO 25600, though.
This isn't an uncommon phenomenon: Most sensors have a "native" ISO range and then a set of "expanded" sensitivities that use software processing to mimic hardware gain. What's unusual is that the NX300's sensor is so good at ISO 3200 and below, and so bad at ISO 6400 and above.
Color & White Balance
As part of our testing process, we check the accuracy of each camera's various color modes and shoot our tests with the most accurate. In the case of the NX300's Picture Wizards (its version of color modes) the most accurate was Standard. That's a little odd, since there's also an Off option, which you'd expect to be the least altered. But anyway...
The Standard Picture Wizard (sounds like a player class in a Skyrim/Fatal Frame mashup, doesn't it?) produced generally accurate colors. The best ∆C 00 corrected color error we ever see from consumer-grade cameras is around 2.2, and anything under 3.0 is considered to be above average. The NX300's 2.77 is therefore very good. Individual color errors are distributed pretty evenly across the spectrum, though reds skew noticeably toward orange.
Automatic white balance performance was similarly above average. Under incandescent light, the NX300 produced a slightly warm cast (1379 K off on average), but its output was far better balanced than many mirrorless and DSLR models we've seen recently. Under compact white fluorescent (306 K) and simulated daylight (250 K), it wasn't perfect but certainly adequate.
Custom white balance followed the same path—very good, if not great. A manual reading under incandescent light produced a color temperature error of about 99 K, CWF lighting produced an error of 191 K, and daylight did best at 86 K.
For our lab-based test, we use a particularly tough 10:1 signal-to-noise ratio to determine the number of "high-quality" dynamic range stops. (Other tests tend to use a 1:1 ratio, which typically produces far higher DR figures.) On average, APS-C DSLRs and mirrorless models tend to produce about 7.5 stops or less of dynamic range at their base ISO settings.
The NX300 managed a surprising 8.56 stops at ISO 100. That's probably due in part to its impressive noise control at lower ISOs, but this is also just a fundamentally great sensor for dynamic range. In our tests, it came out with a score nearly identical to the highly regarded Sony NEX-6.
Most impressively, the NX300 maintains 7.24 stops of DR at ISO 1600 and 5.58 stops at ISO 3200. Really, remarkably good. Of course, thanks to the huge jump in noise at ISO 6400, DR drops right down to 2.66 stops and keeps on dropping to 1.86 stops at ISO 25600.
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