In 2014, the NX1 was perhaps the most advanced mirrorless camera in the world. Built around the world’s first 28-megapixel, backside-illuminated APS-C sensor, it could churn out bursts of full-resolution images, at up to 15 frames per second, and 4K video in the new H.265 format. Despite all the power and complexity, the camera even managed to pull 500 shots from a single battery, well above most of its mirrorless peers.
Yet this miracle came from a company that most pro photographers would have scoffed at just years ago: Samsung. Now, despite rave reviews for the NX1, recent observations suggest Samsung’s first high-end camera may also be its last.
So what happened?
Samsung builds the perfect camera
The most impressive thing about the NX1 may be that Samsung bothered to make it at all. In the beginning, Samsung’s digital camera sector consisted of point-and-shoots that weren’t exactly anything to write home about. But Samsung treated cameras as seriously it did cell phones to televisions: It didn’t want to compete, it wanted to dominate – particularly with mirrorless cameras.
The NX1, as Samsung’s first stab at a professional system camera, was an instant success.
As good as it looked on paper, I actually expected to dislike the NX1. Although similar in appearance to its predecessor, the NX30, the NX1 incorporated virtually all-new tech and was announced just six months later, making it very much a first-generation product. With virtually no photography pedigree, I felt it was nearly impossible for Samsung to succeed with its first high-end camera. I assumed it would be nothing but a computer with a lens attached.
Instead, I found a surprisingly approachable, well-rounded photographic machine, with specs that were as competitive in the real world as they were on paper. I was astonished, and I wasn’t the only one.
DP Review handed the NX1 its coveted Gold Award, with a score that’s a full ten-percentage points above the NX30; DXOMark called it the “new king of APS-C hybrids,” lauding the sensor’s dynamic range, low noise performance, and color depth; Digital Trends’ own David Elrich named it “our favorite camera of 2014,” beating out the full-frame Nikon D750. Samsung had done the impossible. It didn’t just have a strong showing, it blew everyone else away.
The NX1, as Samsung’s first stab at a professional system camera, was an instant success, at least among the press. Whether or not it sold well may be another story, but penetrating a market takes time, especially when that market is made up of enthusiast and professional photographers with thousands of dollars invested in lenses from other systems. People don’t switch to a new camera brand overnight. The NX1 did what it needed to do: drawing positive attention to the Samsung name, presenting it as a viable option for real photographers. In recent years, Samsung impressed us with its new cameras, and, from our observations, was a camera brand to watch.
From camera darling, to the forgotten one
Over the past several months, the NX1 (and its downscaled counterpart, the NX500) has quietly vanished from store shelves. Given the age of the products (the NX1 was announced in September of 2014) the idea of them being discontinued at this point isn’t altogether shocking or unexpected. What’s troubling is that no replacement models have been announced; Samsung didn’t even show any NX cameras or lenses at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show. Either Samsung is sandbagging its next camera release for reasons unknown, or, more realistically, it’s quietly exiting the market.
Given the age of the products the idea of them being discontinued at this point isn’t altogether shocking.
Adding to the intrigue, Samsung representatives denied the rumor last December that the company would exit the market, but there has been no news since to suggest it is still actively developing new interchangeable-lens models. And, our attempts to reach Samsung for comment have been unanswered.
A tough nut to crack
On one hand, this wouldn’t be terribly surprising. The enthusiast and professional photography market segment is not welcoming of new entrants – Sony’s meteoric rise came only after years of experimentation, failure, redesign, and rebranding. Furthermore, whatever pennies of profit Samsung hoped to eke out of camera sales couldn’t possibly have come close to the numbers being put up by its smartphone business. In fact, Samsung’s digital imaging division actually exists within its mobile division, so even a flagship product like the NX1 is just a small fish in a very large pond. If it was underperforming, shutting down its development would be relatively easy.
Not to say the company hasn’t tried to increase its visibility. To promote the NX30, Samsung held a few “Ditch the DSLR” events that encouraged consumers to exchange their DSLRs for a mirrorless model. And with the NX1, it even tapped actor and director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to create a crowd-sourced video to promote the camera’s filmmaking capabilities (interestingly, all the associated videos have been removed or set to private).
The South Korean company doesn’t fully participate in the Camera and Imaging Product Association’s (CIPA) statistical research, which is based in Japan (the home of Nikon, Canon, and Sony), but adding its shipments to the tally probably wouldn’t change the fact that digital imaging isn’t exactly a growth industry. Which begs the question, why did Samsung bother?
The possible reasons Samsung chose to expand its consumer imaging business are varied. Perhaps, seeing that its entry-level cameras were not performing well, Samsung thought it would have more success in higher-end products. This would echo the sentiments and actions of Sony, which has been able to offset declining sales of entry-level cameras with increased sales of high-end, high-margin products, namely the mirrorless camera – one of the few growth areas.
Or, even without gaining significant market share, Samsung could have used the NX1 as a testbed to showcase its tech, present itself as a leader in digital imaging, and thus build trust in the photographic capabilities of its other products. This could have helped boost sales of Galaxy phones, for example.
The real goal may not have been consumer sales at all. The NX1 may have had a secondary purpose: to attract other camera manufacturers to Samsung sensors. This would have been (and may still be) a plausible course of action for Samsung to pursue, using profits from the sale of sensors to fund the development of its own cameras (or offset the losses), a maneuver taken right out of Sony’s playbook. Samsung’s semiconductor business website even shows Canon and Nikon cameras (albeit with brand names Photoshopped out) on its imaging technology page, suggesting it at least entertained the idea of selling its BSI APS-C sensor to other manufacturers.
Speculations abound on the Internet
At the end of the day, Samsung is a very large company, with a hand in many industries around the world. Ultimately, its gamble on a flagship camera never represented a significant risk to its overall business. Samsung has the resources to experiment; the NX1 may even have been a product born of pure curiosity. Who knows?
The Internet, as expected, is full of theories as to why Samsung may be exiting the market, ranging from the mundane to the near-conspiratorial. Maybe Samsung couldn’t close any deals to provide sensors to other camera manufacturers. Perhaps it got skittish when Sony announced last year that it would divest its own semiconductor division, already responsible for over 40 percent of imaging sensors in use worldwide, in order to aggressively grow the business even further. (Later that year, Sony announced it was buying Toshiba’s sensor business for $166 million.)
Perhaps the most tragic theory is that the NX1 was simply too little, too late. It’s probably safe to assume that Samsung’s mirrorless camera venture didn’t pan out as well as the company had hoped. Way back in 2010, Photo Rumors reported on an AP interview with Samsung’s vice president of camera business, Jeong Wook, who proudly predicted Samsung would be “the best selling camera brand” by 2015. At the time, Samsung was in fourth place in terms of market share, behind Canon, Nikon, and Sony. By the end of 2014, nothing had changed.
Too soon to say goodbye
The NX1 was a moonshot, a leap of faith, and its trajectory looked strong. And in a way, as risky as it was, it made sense: Many camera makers have had to reinvent themselves to stay relevant, from Sony to Fujifilm to Olympus. Each had to work to carve out a niche, and one can’t help but feel Samsung was just on the cusp of doing the same, right up until it fizzled out.
However, just because you may not be able buy a Samsung camera for much longer, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to buy one with its tech. Samsung proved itself a capable manufacturer of sensors, and the reputation points earned by the NX1 could lead to positive developments down the road. It would not be surprising to learn of other manufacturers employing Samsung APS-C sensors in future models, as unlikely as that seems at the current moment, given Sony’s dominant position in the semiconductor arena.
Should it prove true that Samsung is shuttering its consumer camera business (or shifting it to new directions, namely Gear 360 and VR), we still won’t look at the NX1 as a failure. It was a daring maneuver, a true flagship product that came incredibly close to shaking the foundations of the camera industry. Samsung poured everything it had into the NX1, and while it may not have succeeded financially, it was still one of the most impressive and unique cameras we have ever used. We’d be sad to see it go.