Today I welcome Jonathan Wong who has provided a GREAT guest article for us comparing the Olympus E-PL1 to the new Samsung NX10. Something I myself was VERY curious about. Thank you Jonathan!
The Perfect Camera – On vacation with the Samsung NX10 and Olympus E-PL1
Hello, my name is Jonathan. I have a problem.
I admit it: I like to receive praise for my photos. Whether it be a friend commenting on a picture of my home-mangled dinner, or the bride and groom claiming that my photos are “better than the pro’s”. It’s feel-good, ego-boosting validation for taking the effort to put myself in the right place, at the right time and press the right buttons. But this is not my problem.
Rewind a little and at the other end of the photography timeline is the delightful “hunting and gathering” stage. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is half the thrill for many people; after all, who can honestly say they don’t get excited when the delivery status changes to “on-board with driver”? But again, this is not my problem.
In between GAS and praise lies the process of actually taking photos. And while this process was largely transparent with pro-SLR gear, there was no stopping the inevitable arm/back aches, weird stares as I repeatedly hauled 3kg of metal and glass up to my eye, and most of all, being asked at every shoot “hey man that’s a nice camera, send me your photos later ok?”
So no more than a week after my last shoot (a wedding, no less) I waved goodbye to my SLR kit, and left myself with the task of finding something smaller, something more inconspicuous, but also something good. Since this was November 2009, the solution seemed obvious: the Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. An SLR-sized sensor in a highly portable package with a fast lens? Brilliant!
Exactly 2 weeks later, I’m back in the shop returning the GF1, simple reason being that the lack of IS (Image Stabilisation) destroyed over 29% of the 1000+ photos that I shot with it (yes, I counted.) I replaced it with a Panasonic LX3, thinking “surely, compacts have come a long way, how much worse than m43 (Micro Four Thirds) can they be?”
1 week later and my wife had a brand new toy (the LX3) and I was once again trawling the Interweb for my next fix. It was then that I began to wonder how good an Olympus E-P1 would be with the Panny 20/1.7. It was also the time that I realised my problem – I was trying to find the Perfect Camera in the fast-developing yet premature land of unexplored compromises that is the world of high-quality compacts. But for any hunter/gatherer, that’s half the fun, isn’t it?
E-PL1 with 20 1.7
Barely days later, I was driving home with my new E-P1 + 20/1.7 combo. Once set up, the camera won my heart with its retro charm, simplicity and above all, image quality. Yes the AF was a bit slow, and the auto exposure a bit wacky, but it took such spectacular photos with such little effort that it won the hearts of so many people at a friend’s birthday that I contemplated asking Olympus for commission.
One of those 11 people expressed interest in my particular camera, and it was about this time that I also started noticing that the new Samsung NX10 + 30mm f/2 pancake lens could be had for less than what I was being offered for my E-P1 + 20/1.7. Barely a heartbeat passes before I pack my brand spanking new NX10 into my bag and hop onto the plane bound for Hong Kong.
The Samsung NX10
Once you pick up the NX10, you immediately notice how wonderful the grip is. It’s beautifully curvaceous and marvellous to hold. This actually makes the camera feel lighter thanks to not having to clasp it so tightly (as I did with the GF1 and E-P1). The adjustment wheel is also beautifully placed just behind the shutter release, and immediately falls to hand when you need it. Unfortunately, while the overall handling is pretty awesome, the menu and zoom buttons are placed rather awkwardly, and several of the buttons on my camera require very firm presses to register (especially the directional buttons.)
The first thing I tested was the AF speed, which I found to be between the GF1 and the E-P1. It’s very quick to focus on something closer than the previous AF target, but a bit slow to focus on something further. Also it’s a pity that the AF gets confused easily in low light, meaning you sometimes need to ‘creep’ the focus by half-pressing the shutter button a few times, or just focus manually on the nice and bright display.
Speaking of the display, it’s easily better than the E-P1 yet not as good as the GF1. The EVF is pretty horrid (pixels galore!) but works in a pinch when you need to bring the camera up to your eye; which I found myself doing often in order to move the camera as far back as possible. The 30mm lens is 46mm equivalent, which is a tricky focal length to work with, even for something as simple as snapping the food placed on the table in front of me. Minimum focus distance of 25cm doesn’t help here either.
However these minor quibbles were secondary to a much bigger problem. When I reviewed the day’s pictures, I found that many of them weren’t sharp. I focused properly, surely? To investigate, I hit the zoom-in button many many many times (Samsung, do we really need 1.1x, 1.2x, 1.3x magnification??) and my heart skipped a beat as the problem revealed itself… camera shake.
But why? I was shooting at daytime in a well-lit restaurant with plenty of ambient light! After a few minutes of adjusting settings and taking test shots, I discovered the horrible, ugly truth about the Samsung NX10: the Auto-ISO programming is AWFUL.
I seriously can’t think of a better word for it. The way Auto-ISO should work (as it does on all Nikons, Olympus, etc.) is to adjust the ISO sensitivity to achieve a sharp picture at the intended level of exposure given your selected aperture/shutter speed. Given that I’m in A mode most of the time (who isn’t?) I expect the camera to hold the shutter speed high enough to prevent camera shake until it hits the max ISO. The E-P1 allows you to choose the max ISO, and Nikon SLRs also let you choose the minimum shutter speed.
Some daft genius at Samsung, however, has decided in their infinite wisdom that a minimum shutter speed of 1/15 is ok (it’s not), and an ISO roof of 800 is ok too (and the camera has an APS-C sensor – why??) The upshot of all of this is that with the Auto-ISO on, and the pancake lens wide open, you’ll struggle to consistently shoot blur-free in anything even barely approaching a “dimly-lit” environment. Even propping the camera up against hard surfaces where possible, over a third of my photos slowed to 1/45 or slower, and over a quarter of those were unusable.
I tried manual ISO but got tired of it very quickly (as many spoilt Nikon shooters would) and instead decided to use S mode for low-light situations. Perfect, I thought, I can set the shutter speed (at relatively shake-free 1/45) and force the ISO to ramp up properly, right? WRONG. The camera once again refuses to go above ISO 800, resulting in severe underexposure in dark scenes. Again I have to ask, why engineer an APS-C sized sensor into the camera if the on-board processing doesn’t automatically take advantage of the high-ISO capabilities??
The other big problem with the NX10 is the way it handles coloured lights. Whether in or out of focus, the Samsung has a tendency to blow these out with all the elegance of a rhino in ballet shoes. The result is a very distracting “ink blotch” effect that stands out like a sore thumb. The severity of the problem can easily be shown here with the correct output (left) up against the NX10’s output (right):
I contemplate hurling the NX10 at a brick wall before realising I have a day left in Hong Kong shopping heaven before heading to my main holiday destination, Japan. I wisely spend said day purchasing an Olympus E-PL1 with the 14-42 kit zoom lens. With yet another new camera in hand, I pack my bags and hop onto the plane. (DÈj‡ vu?)
The Olympus E-PL1
For all intents and purposes, this review could end here: the Olympus E-PL1 is a far superior camera. If you have to choose between these two, I cannot think of any solid reason to recommend the Samsung – which begs the question, what exactly makes the E-PL1 better than the NX10?
First and foremost is the in-body image stabilisation. While I won’t join the debate of whether IS is better in the lens or the body, one thing that I know for certain is that the goal of the ILC (interchangeable-lens compact) concept is to permit high-quality photography in a small and portable form factor. The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 fits the bill perfectly here, being sharp, small, and quite often out of stock. Most importantly however, it is a lens that does not have IS built in and so relies on the body providing this functionality. If you are on the m43 bandwagon, you either already have this lens, or have it on order; and the opportunity to stabilise an already-fast lens turns your camera into a low-light shooting machine.
Second is the high-ISO image quality. The NX10 should theoretically have the advantage here as the larger sensor captures more light and hence less noise; but I can barely comment on the amount of noise in the NX10’s JPG output because in low light the noise reduction algorithm bastardises the detail so very badly. Here are some 100% crops of the carpet next to my hotel bed (taken indoors at dawn) with the NX10 @ ISO 800 and the E-PL1 @ ISO 3200. The lighting was dim and the Samsung refused to auto-focus at all without its hideously green and off-centre AF assist light, but the results speak for themselves!
Third is the amount of customisation the E-PL1 affords the user. While the Samsung insults you with a trivial, “idiot-proof” menu, the Olympus gives you access to extra useful settings including not only the aforementioned max Auto-ISO, but also the manual focus dial direction, full-time MF override, metering moment (on focus or on exposure), auto-exposure compensation, white balance adjustment, noise reduction and more.
Fourth is the general image “feel”. Different cameras and lenses “draw” the same scene differently, and I much prefer the warm, vibrant default output of the E-PL1 when compared to the NX10. Of course if you prefer a cooler, more natural setting, this can be achieved via the E-PL1’s white balance adjustment menu. The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto was absolutely stunning to see in real-life, and its shimmering beauty is recreated so well by the E-PL1. The NX10’s rendering of the castle feels cold and lifeless in comparison.
The Olympus E-PL1 with Panasonic 20 1.7
The Samsung NX10
The Olympus is not all sweetness and light, however. While the matrix auto-exposure algorithm (ambitiously called “ESP”) does well in most conditions, in harsh lighting (e.g. shooting into the sun) it has a tendency to under-expose. Compounding this problem is the display’s relative lack of dynamic range, which makes it hard to judge the exposure accurately in the sunny outdoors.
I’m also not a fan of the E-PL1’s power-on time, which takes a full second longer than the NX10. I also much prefer the NX10’s tactile SLR-style on/off lever, as the E-PL1’s power button made me think several times that I’d turned the camera off when instead I’d only woken it from standby. Such practice does not bode well for battery life, and it’s a good thing I purchased a spare battery since I found myself needing both when out shooting for the whole day. The NX10 in contrast seems to last forever.
Olympus’ manual focus implementation is also a bit inconsistent. While both cameras use electronic manual focus (the focus ring is purely an electronic input), the E-PL1 scales your input in a funny way that makes it confusing to hit the right spot. The Samsung meanwhile is fast, linear and direct, spoilt only by the plasticky scratchy feedback from the focus ring itself.
I also don’t understand the E-PL1’s inability to record picture orientation in the JPG files – a trivial feature present on even the most basic of cameras. Manually rotating portrait photos gets tedious after a few hundred photos or so, let alone a few thousand! Notably, the Panasonic GF1 also lacks this feature when paired with the 20/1.7.
Japan is notoriously famous for its awesome vending machines, dispensing not only cold drinks, but also hot drinks, cup noodles, and used women’s underwear (seriously.) After realising that these machines were everywhere, I decided there was no need to lug a boring water bottle around, which cleared up enough space in my bag to bring the Samsung on tour as well. Since I only have one right hand, I gave the Samsung to my wife as we explored some of Japan’s oldest temples and their magnificent gardens. She fired off a few shots with the NX10 and to my surprise, said matter-of-factly: “This camera’s faster. Hmm.”
Perhaps she was tired of the hassle of using the E-PL1’s AEL button, or squinting at the lower-resolution screen, or always patiently waiting for the slow autofocus? After playing with the NX10 myself, there was no doubt about it: in sunny conditions, the NX10 handles better than the E-PL1. The auto exposure is more accurate, the AF is faster and more accurate (since you can adjust the AF target size), and the display is much clearer.
Importantly, whilst my wife is quite the perfectionist, she isn’t a photographer. It took her forever to get the “perfect” shot with the E-PL1 outdoors as she wrestled with the exposure lock and the slow AF; portrait shots with her behind the camera would often be 20-30 second ordeals of pain and drawn-out smiles. However with the Samsung, she was as fast as ever; aim, click, done. Just as it should be.
I then realised that I had made the ultimate reviewer’s mistake of setting my heart on the E-PL1 and biasing all opinion towards a favourable outcome for the Olympus. The reality was coming back to bite me, so we ventured off to Suzuka International Race Circuit to give the Samsung another opportunity to redeem itself.
And redeem itself it did! We arrived at the circuit in time for an open-wheel race car event and decided to grab shots of the cars flying by on the main straight, using a panning motion to blur out the stands and the pits. Both cameras were pre-focused on the track and then set to MF. After switching cameras regularly between us over the course of several hundred shots (much to the amusement of the people sitting behind us; think the clown game at the fair) we found that the Samsung’s consistently short shutter lag, combined with using the viewfinder to help stabilise the camera resulted in a keeper rate of 12%. On the other hand, the E-PL1 + 20/1.7 combo exhibited some slight shutter lag (only prevalent here), and while 8% were keepers, none of them were as sharp as those from the Samsung. Granted the Olympus was shooting a wider field of view and so there would naturally be less detail, however there was no debate as to which camera was more fun in this test.
The Perfect Camera
In the hands of your average shooter who snaps away mostly outdoors and in well-lit indoor environments, the Samsung NX10 excels. It combines comfort with practicality, and is capable of providing immediate satisfaction to the user with its excellent handling and high-resolution display. While the pancake lens’ field of view may be too restrictive for some, it does make for a very compact package that is actually thinner than the E-PL1 + 20/1.7 (ignoring the EVF.) It is not only a very attractive gadget, but also one that punches ahead of the E-PL1 in certain situations.
However as the light begins to fade, the Samsung NX10 becomes more and more of a chore to work with. And while some people have a predisposition to manually set the ISO sensitivity, there is still no getting around the NX10’s other flaws such as the colour blow-outs, over-aggressive noise reduction, and the lack of both MF override and in-body image stabilisation. Furthermore, when compared to the ever-growing Micro Four Thirds standard, you also lose the potential to use a wide variety of fantastic lenses, both native (e.g. Panasonic 20/1.7) and exotic (Leica M mount, of course!)
However, what puts the E-PL1 so far ahead of the NX10 at the end of the day is the overwhelming confidence it gives the user to face any shooting situation, under any conditions. Paired with either the kit 14-42mm zoom, the 17/2.8 pancake or the brilliant Panasonic 20/1.7, it is always eager to prove itself as a camera that is superbly capable of capturing your special moments at high quality, first time, every time.
We set aside our last day in Japan to explore the amazing street markets in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. As my wife intended to decorate herself as a Christmas tree of shopping bags, her purse went into my bag, which left space for only one camera, and the choice was dead simple: the Olympus E-PL1.
Olympus E-PL1 w/ Panasonic 20 1.7
Addendum: Looking Forward
Whilst there is no doubt as to which camera is the best for me, it still pays to consider what lies in each camera’s future with respect to firmware upgrades. At the time of writing this review, Olympus released firmware update v1.1 for the E-PL1 which speeds up the AF significantly (to a level roughly par with the NX10) and makes the camera even more fun to use. The only other significant features I’d like to see in the next update would be a smarter auto exposure algorithm, and recording of orientation info in photos.
Samsung has a great opportunity to quell many of my concerns with the NX10, principally the poorly-implemented Auto ISO system. Allowing the user to set the minimum shutter speed and max ISO will increase the usability of this camera immensely. Further improvements could also address the colour blow-outs, noise reduction and maybe even add a proper calendar view.
Regardless of what fixes and improvements are in store, one thing is for certain: the ones who benefit most from the ILC race are us, the photographers!
Olympus E-PL1 – Diorama Art Filter
E-PL1 – Look at this color!
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