Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Samsung NX1 initial review of HD footage

Up until now I have shied away from owning a DSLR camera for video production because of the limited dynamic range, weaker codecs, poor in-camera audio, moiré, and difficult production configurations to make them work in the field professionally. Yet, over the years, I have shot many productions using cameras like the Canon 7D and 5D Mark II and III using Canon photo lenses and have been somewhat impressed with the image quality. And there is no denying there are producers out there that actually request a DSLR for their video projects. 

My personal workaround was to use my Sony EX1 with a Letus Extreme adapter with Canon FD photo prime lenses. The advantage was having access to Sony's Cine Alta picture profiles and well adopted XDCAM EX files, plus an option to output 4:2:2 10 bit to my AJA KiPro Mini for ProRes files, and I had quality audio straight to camera, all while delivering the desired shallow focus image. 


My Sony EX1 rigged out with Letus Extreme, Canon prime, matte box

In fact, the Letus has a unique image quality that feels very 16mm film-like due to its vibrating ground glass system. It had an organic quality about it. I actually shot a feature length movie this way called ODD MAN OUT, (available on DVD, and in some places, VOD).


Scene from ODD MAN OUT using Sony EX1/Letus combo


But admittedly, the Letus has its cons too. I lost at least a stop of light, and recording an image off the ground glass lost a certain level of image clarity. Plus the Letus motor could die on location (which happened on that feature project). The Letus rig adds quite a bit of weight that was awkward for handheld setups (almost approaching a full size camera).


Then recently, I got an architectural video project that would require me to shoot both stills and HD video of large, newly finished buildings inside and out. I pitched a UHD video solution with my Arri Amira (once that option became available) or a Sony FS7 (in the interim) using PL glass and using a high MP still camera with a PL adapter to maximize image quality using the same PL lenses. Unfortunately, the client's budget could not afford this high-end approach, even if we dropped down to standard HD and the already sparse crew. I needed an economy budget solution. 


I looked at the Sony A7s because of its full frame, XAVC codec and high dynamic range and extremely low light sensitivity, but the stills were only 12 MP and I'd need another higher MP still camera. I wanted to help my client build a future-proofed UHD library from which they could pull stills from the video as well as present in UHD down the road.

The only UHD DSLR cameras I was considering were the full frame Sony A7s and the four-thirds Panasonic GH4. Both had pros and cons, like all DSLRs do. 4K on the A7s was only possible via output to a Atomos Shogun. The GH4 records internally with great 100 mbps codec but only on four-thirds sensor that lacks dynamic range and shallow focus depth, plus a pretty heavy crop factor. Its wide focus depth is a plus for architecture but I wanted the camera to be useful outside this project as well. I thought maybe this was the time to replace the Sony EX1/Letus setup with a fresh, new DSLR option.

Then I came across the Samsung NX1. It has 28MP stills and internal UHD/4K video that looked pretty good, but uses the new H.265 codec that would require transcoding to edit with. Plus there was a crop factor of the APS-C sensor (x1.5), which put it between the A7s and GH4 in sensor size. But it did have adapters to use PL glass and my Canon FD primes. Though it didn't have the higher dynamic range or low light ability of the A7s, I expected I could live without those traits. After all, when a client opts out of a high-end approach they are in essence saying, "we will accept image quality compromises for paying less money", at least to some degree.
My Samsung rigged with Canon Cinema Zoom & Fotodiox adapter

I had read both positive and negative reviews on the NX1, but many of the negatives were suddenly being addressed by Samsung with a firmware update, like recording 23.98fps, dynamic range options, luminance range options, among others. One of the big negatives that I don't think can ever be modified in firmware is poor rolling shutter performance, especially in UHD/4K mode. But all DSLRs suffer from this and the Samsung posted one of the best rolling shutter performances in HD mode (where I'd do far more shooting in). I knew I'd be moving the camera very slowly for UHD recording of architecture, so I'm expecting this will be acceptable. Again, no DSLR has good UHD or 4K rolling shutter performance. Why spend more?

The Review:

Sorry for the long-winded setup to my logic in purchasing this camera, but felt it necessary to explain that everyone has different circumstances behind purchase decisions based on advantages and disadvantages, project needs, and also based on other equipment they currently own.

I won't be reviewing every detail of the camera. There are plenty of those already online (the ones I read to help me decide on this camera). Instead, my review will be more specific to it's HD video performance after just a few professional outings.


DO LIKE:

Feel of the camera; straight forward menu layout; ease of use; excellent OLED LCD screen and EVF (huge advantage to determine focus); peaking (though limited); histogram; audio meters; spot meter; quick access buttons to settings; touch screen interface; custom white balance; good rolling shutter performance in HD mode; dynamic range and luma options; 4:2:2 color space out of HDMI; H.265 compression and storage; settings summary display; settings stay put after power down, Adobe RGB color space.

DON'T LIKE:

Some bugginess, i.e. occasional crashes, freeze ups; AGC can't be disabled in camera (yet); no H.264 option; slow conversion software; peaking only in magnification mode; poor in-camera audio noise (as do all DSLRs that I've used); HDMI HD output works in monitors but not recognized in my AJA KiPro (yet); poor rolling shutter in UHD/4K mode; hard to blindly feel the video record button; can't use magnify focus assist while output to HDMI monitor; 8 bit only; EVF does not activate if you've started recording while watching the LCD; and can't hear playback if plugged into monitor.

MY LENS SETUP:

I wanted to use the lenses I already have which consists of my Canon Cinema Zoom 30-105mm PL and my Canon FD photo primes. I bought Fotodiox adapters for each, which go on nicely and work well. The Cine Zoom is sharp as a tac, maybe even a little too sharp, depending on your point of view, but certainly a much higher level of crisp sharpness compared to my Sony EX1/Letus combo, as is the case with the FD photo primes as well. Though the vintage primes offer a softer, more film-look. Both lensing options delivered excellent shallow depth focus. I do plan to invest in the Samsung 16-50mm Premium S lens to achieve wide angle focus tracking down the road.

AUDIO SETUP:

Knowing in-camera audio is noisy in all DSLRs, I hated the idea of dual audio, which has become the standard approach to recording professional audio with DSLRs. I own a Zoom H2 and a Sony mic that needs phantom power, so that required I get some sort of powered pre-amp. As is my custom, I started with a low cost solution and tried a Beachtek DXA-Connect, which had attractive hot-shoe mount points, but this unit was too noisy and lacked enough clean gain, so I switched out for a JuicedLink RA222 (that even had an AGC disable mode) and found it provided much cleaner gain into the camera's lowest setting of 1. It mostly canceled out the AGC effect and delivered fairly acceptable audio straight into the camera. But alas, if the audio going into the Zoom is cleaner, which am I likely to use? You guess it, always the cleanest audio. But the JuicedLink to H2 to camera setup is not very streamlined like I'd like it to be. Too many cables, too many batteries, too many devices to setup. And if I wasn't going to use the in-camera audio anyway, why spend the extra dollars on the JuiceLink unit when, for less, I could get a Tascam DR-70D recorder with four channels, which allowed for safety track recording? Easier mounting, less cables, less batteries, less device setup time, and easy meter level viewing. I could even take a line/in house board feed. Just a lot more flexible options with this approach. So, I too, have now joined the ranks of dual recording workflow. Dang!
Tascam DR-70D rigged on rails to counter balance and easy viewing meters


VIDEO PERFORMANCE:

Most all of the reviews or video samples I have seen only speak to the 4K or UHD video quality (note: most never show the camera moving). I find this curious as there is likely more HD production to be done on this camera given market demand and it's superior HD rolling shutter performance. So these initial samples are 1920x1080 29.97p with a few 23.98p on the timeline as well.


1920x1080 29.97p Video clips showed minor artifacts on cheek kicker in wide angle

As stated above, the clarity of this camera is amazing! But I did see some 
moiré on certain clothing or backgrounds and some digital compression noise, aliasing and/or artifacts after file conversion (see clips). Moiré is a common issue with DSLRs, and really, with many digital cameras. There are different kinds of moiré and it changes with millimeter, camera angle, distance to subject, and to a degree, the amount of detail set in the camera. The example below shows moiré on the man's collar because he was wearing a very fine striped shirt that would pretty much moiré on any camera. 


Moire on collar in wide shot only (23.98p), +2 black level
Sharpness set to -9 did not eliminate moire, +2 black level (29.97p)
On this shot I did go into the dynamic range settings and brought the sharpness down to -9 (tops out at -10), however, there is still moiré on his collar too. I did not see a huge difference in sharpness either. It was rather subtle for setting it so low. 

Using Digital Anarchy BeautyBox

I found a Premiere Pro plug-in from Digital Anarchy called BeautyBox that was able to clean up the moiré on this man's collar above, but was only partially able to clean up the moiré on this man's collar below.

Using Digital Anarchy BeautyBox

And obviously, BeautyBox would not be useful in cleaning up large areas of architecture as it seems to be a pixel blending plug-in. BTW - it is excellent on cleaning blemishes and shine on people's skin.

Certainly, some cameras handle moire better than others because some have anti-aliasing filters built in. The NX1 does not. The A7s and GH4 is said to do a better job in this regard, but with every lens, every subject matter? I doubt it. At what point do we say this moiré is acceptable or unacceptable? My Sony EX1 would rarely moire with the Letus combo because the detail of the sensor and lens combination wasn't as clear.

I researched anti-moiré filters and found a pretty thorough test done by Barry Green using Caprock made filters. These are in-front of lens filters. I found his results would sway me away from trying the products because he determined you have to match the right filter for the right millimeter. Time consuming, thus not practical in the field. Plus the filters introduced a host of side-effects while combating moiré like blur, color shift, contrast shifts, etc.

A better product comes from Mosaic Engineering with their VAF series of behind-the-lens filters designed for mostly Canon cameras. This product is said to work with all millimeters. However there is not currently one for the NX1. And it also has a few caveats noted here on their site.

Zeiss makes a filter called Softar which has some anti-moiré qualities but also adds some degree of softness and bloom to highlights.

I always record in the camera's highest quality setting and convert at the Pro Quality level. The luminance option was set to 0-255 with dynamic range on, Smart Range off, black level 0 for some shots and +2 for others (factory shots and guy with marble background).


+2 black level setting (23.98p)

I found color to be fairly accurate, leaning toward warmer tones. Custom white balance works nicely and I appreciate that it samples a small box area on screen so I don't have to fill the entire frame with a gray or white sample.


Reasonable dynamic range (23.98p)

I did a shoot outside as well (though not in these clips) and found even at 100 ISO, I am going to need some ND to get shallow focus images. To solve this, I recently purchased a Schneider IR ND9, which I'm hoping will also help combat any IR issues outdoors. I can also pair that up with a pola for greater stop control. These are expensive filters in 4x5.65 P size for my matte box, but a must have when you are putting PL glass on this camera.

OPERATION:

As far as operating the camera, I like the the OLED EVF outdoors, but hate that I must start the recording with my eye to the EVF. If you start recording while looking at the LCD and then move your eye to the EVF, you can't get the EVF to activate. This is a pain because I have to start my dual audio recording after I start camera recording, thus I must move my eye away from the EVF a moment. It's just a discipline to remember when outside, always start recording with your eye to the EVF.

I wish Samsung had provided continuous peaking for the LCD or EVF during recording, not just when you punch in on magnification before recording. Most of the time I want peaking on rather than hunting for focus during moves. Continuous peaking is really needed for manual focus lenses.


It's also annoying that in order to punch in for magnification I have to unplug the HDMI cable to monitor. Also have to unplug the monitor cable to playback video with audio out of the headphone's jack. These are exactly the kinds of things that make DSLR video production difficult and make me always yearn for my Arri Amira.


CONCLUSION:
If not for the budget constraints of a particular project, I don't know that I would have bought this camera over the A7s, just because I think Sony has a leg up on Samsung knowing what video shooters need in terms of codec, dynamic range, low light capability, minimizing moiré, etc. I would love to see my PL lens on an A7s and compare. But at the same time this camera is at least 1K cheaper, more actually, when you factor in the higher adapter costs and external recorder for 4K recording. Budgets and shooting situations dictate what tools we use in the field. When a producer says he wants to shoot with a DSLR I'm to understand that he or she is accepting the short-comings of these cameras to save the budget. They want a reasonably good result and I think the Samsung NX1 can certainly provide that in most cases. I love the sharp image it delivers, and so far, clients are pleasantly surprised. As I fiddle with settings, (sharpness, black level, luminance, etc.) I think I'm going to like this camera more and more and glad I didn't pay a higher price for another camera that would still end up with a long list of short-comings.

I've learned that the market decides what works and what doesn't, what's acceptable and what isn't. Doesn't matter as much what I personally think about DSLRs so long as the client likes the images and the price he or she is paying. I want the camera to be easy and flexible to work with in the field while delivering great images. The Samsung NX1 seems to meet me half way, better than most, and holds a promising future ahead if they can continue to improve it.

Here's the link to the online video clips in their untouched form. No color correction or effects applied.

My next blog posting will be test shots of architecture using different lenses and different record sizes from 1080 to UHD to check moiré again.

3 comments:

  1. Another fine article, Alan–although the phrase "future-proof" is getting tougher to throw out, with the contestant arrival of new cameras and larger formats.

    I'm going with "delayed-unsuable" instead...

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  2. UNUSABLE that is…can't get through three sentences without a typo…sigh

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  3. Hi. Interesting article. Can You let me know what clamp you are using to attach Tascam to the rails? Thanks

    ReplyDelete