The 14.6-megapixel Samsung GX-20 digital SLR is the result of a partnership between camera specialist Pentax and electronics giant Samsung that delivers impressive results.
The photographic industry is littered with partnerships and collaborations. Manufacturers will either find themselves bought by a larger brand with extensive purchasing power (see Sony and Konica Minolta), or focus on their field of expertise and then share these technologies with other brands. Indeed, there is a long tradition of companies working co-operatively to create cameras, with Samsung and Pentax collaborating once again to create the GX-20.
While Pentax offers a rich history of photographic expertise, Samsung boasts the facilities of a multinational electronics specialist, and as such the pair are a DSLR production partnership seemingly destined to succeed. A result of that partnership, however, is that their respective new DSLR releases tend to launch at or around the same time, as is the case with Pentax’s K20D and the Samsung GX-20. The K20D certainly impresses, so how does the Samsung GX-20 weigh up? Is it the golden child of a fruitful relationship or the sign of a technological collaboration where one party is gaining more than the other?
Postioning of GX-20
The Samsung GX-20 replaces the Samsung GX-10 at the top of Samsung’s digital camera range. Much like its smaller and less advanced siblings, such as the NV compact series, the GX range has always sported stylish design and Samsung’s characteristic blue detailing, and the same rings true with the GX-20.
Improvements over the GX-10
While only little over a year has passed since the Samsung GX-10 ’s launch, several key improvements debut in the new model. The GX-figurehead now possesses a sensor complete with a ‘professional’ resolution – the 10.2MP CCD of old has been dispensed with to make way for a brand new, Samsung-manufactured 14.6MP CMOS APS-C sensor. As the GX20 possesses the same sensor as the K20D, both now boast the highest megapixel count of any current DSLR bar the £5,000 Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III. The increase in resolution means that large prints are not a problem, with the GX-20 capable of outputting images at a resolution of 4672 x 3104 pixels – more than enough for a majority of enthusiast photographers.
Said images are outputted in the form of either JPEG – with four different levels of compression – or Raw files in the universal DNG format. Samsung has decided not to include its own type of Raw encryption (as Pentax has with PEF files on the K20D) in what could be seen as its support of the growing groundswell of opinion in favour of a universal Raw format across all brands.
Pentax ‘K’ Lens Mount
One of the features of the labour and expertise exchange that appears in this Pentax partnership is that the GX-20 features the Pentax ‘K’ lens mount, meaning that you can switch from your Pentax system to the GX-20 if you so please, without having to trade all of your old Pentax lenses for the alternative Samsung/Schneider optics.
Extended ISO Range
Back to improvements on the Samsung GX-10, another of which appears in the form of an extended ISO range, which now runs from ISO 100 to 3200 (stretching to 6400 in ‘expanded’ mode). The GX-20’s LCD screen has also received a boost, gaining an extra 0.2in and 20k pixels to now measure 2.7 inches and 230k pixels respectively, with the screen displaying Samsung’s new liveview functionality.
AF System and Metering
With regards to updates on the GX-20 from the Samsung GX-10, that’s about where it ends. Elsewhere, many of the features from the predecessor remain. The GX-20 features 11 AF points – nine centrally located in a three by three grid, with two at both the extreme left and right of the frame for added AF flexibility. In-camera optical image stabilisation is present, with a sophisticated sensor-shift system taking care of both this and dust reduction. The expected exposure modes are present in the shape of PASM controls, along with an ISO Sensitivity Priority, Shutter and Aperture Priority, Automatic, Bulb and Flash X-sync modes. Both Auto and user-customisable modes are also available, meaning that shooting can be set up to cater for all levels of expertise. Much is the same in the case of the white balance, which is presented in several variations – Auto, the conventional presets, three colour temperature presets and full manual control.
Bracketing and HDR Creation
The GX-20 also offers bracketing options for both exposure and white balance – both of which are fully adjustable. Seemingly wary of not distancing itself too far from the consumer end of the DSLR market, Samsung has included a range of in-camera post-production tools. Accessed via the playback menu, a range of different effects can be applied to images already captured, from the more traditional b&w and sepia options, through to a dimension-altering ‘Slim’ filter and a ‘HDR’ filter that, though boasting the ‘HDR’ moniker, doesn’t actually create a ‘true’ HDR image. To achieve a true HDR file, multiple images are required at different exposures, and then these images are blended so that detail is shown in previously lost areas, such as shadows and highlights. The GX-20 instead simply amplifies the details in shadows and highlights, much the same as using the Curves tool in Photoshop, and does so on one image. As with JPEG conversion, this results in not quite as good an image as could be achieved with a little manual intervention, though it no doubt has its appeal.
Similarities to Samsung GX-10
The GX-20 is, aesthetically, barely different from the Samsung GX-10. Outside of the increased size and resolution of the LCD screen, little has changed. The rear of the chassis houses embedded operational buttons to the left and right of the screen, with the useful ‘Fn’ button – allowing quick access to drive mode, ISO, white balance and flash controls – located conveniently for access with the thumb of your shooting hand.
A handy dial for selecting focusing points circles the operational D-Pad and ‘OK’ button, and the rear also offers quick
access to the AF control button, exposure compensation and in-camera shake reduction functions. Access to both Raw and focusing modes is provided by a pair of buttons within reach of the left hand, and a metering-mode dial on the top of the body completes a function-packed yet immensely intuitive interface.
One of the main features of the GX-20’s design that edges it into pro-spec territory is its weatherproofing. The GX-20 has managed to incorporate a total of 72 individual silicone-sealed weatherproofing locations, leaving you free to carry on shooting no matter what environment you happen to find yourself in.
LCD Screen and Live View
While the boost to the resolution of the LCD screen is welcome, it is still worth noting that the pixel count is lower than some other DSLRs in its group, like the Sony A700 (3in, 307k pixels) for example. Also, it is sometimes a struggle to accurately review images in bright light, with the LCD suffering from glare. The GX-20 also sees the introduction of live view, though the fixed, and slightly underspecified, LCD screen means that this is more of a tool for tripod-based work (due to the fact that framing the
subject can often prove problematic when trying to use a viewfinder in conjunction with a tripod).
Similarities with Pentax K20D
Despite the fact that Pentax and Samsung have effectively produced the same-specified camera, there are several stylisations that distinguish the pair. Whether it be the simple aesthetic of a subtler font, or the more major design decision to embed rather than emboss the buttons, the overall feel of
the GX-20 over the K20D is of a more sleek, professional and modern
On the whole, the GX-20 is a pleasure to use. The menu system is designed in such a manner that navigation is simple and intuitive. The various function wheels and quick-access buttons are fully customisable, meaning that the GX-20 can effectively be set up to suit your individual needs.
We’ve few complaints with image capture, either. The 11-point AF system allows prompt focusing, although there does seem to be a slight delay between the lens focusing and the camera letting you know it’s done so. Due to its high resolution, the files produced by the GX-20 are by no means small; closed JPEGs average around 8MB, with DNGs weighing in at a hefty 23MB. As a result, the camera doesn’t offer an overly-impressive frame per second rate. The 3fps is dependent on card write speed and has a cap on how long it takes for the buffer to fill up. Using a Class 6 Lexar Professional SDHC card, we managed about 20 JPEGs before slowdown occurred and around half that amount of DNGs, and once the buffer is full you have to wait some time for it to clear.
The dimensions and weight of the GX-20 vary only slightly from the Samsung GX-10 and thus it boasts the same reassuring weight in the hand and in use. The handgrip allows for comfortable carrying, and the silicone-sealed weatherproof body has a professional feel.
A slight niggle with the design of the GX-20 is the fact the viewpoint through the viewfinder is somewhat restricted, not allowing clear sight of the viewfinder, and in particular the all-important camera settings LED along the bottom. This means that to view the information, one has to look around the viewfinder, resulting in a slightly uncomfortable shooting experience and something which may prove problematic for spectacle wearers.
Raw and JPEG
While the GX-20 offers a boost in resolution over its predecessor, do those extra pixels really help? it’s true that good results are achieved from both Raw and JPEGs, so long as you are prepared to do a little correction in post-production, the Raw files will reward you better. Noise is a little better controlled and colours are subtler, meaning that lovely rich tones are simply achieved with the slightest of post-production. Having said that, JPEGs straight out of camera are eminently usable.
The GX-20, much like its predecessor, exhibits a tendency to underexpose by around half a stop. However, a result of this tendency is that highlights are well preserved – this hints that the underexposure may well be a conscious decision by Samsung, as highlights are more difficult to correct in post-production as opposed to shadow detail.
Noise control is generally top notch – very little noise makes an appearance up until ISO 1600, and even at the highest ratings of 3200 and 6400, the noise is by no means destructive. Also, Raw files exhibit an even greater control of noise, making even ISO 3200 usable for larger prints.
Tone And Contrast
Tones are sometimes lost due to the aforementioned underexposures, but, once restored in post-production, are generally pleasing.
Colour And White Balance
The white balance on the GX-20 is excellent – there was not one single instance on test when I felt compelled to take it into my own control, and so minor are the adjustments that may need to be made that, if you were to solely shoot Raw, then you may never need to do them in-camera. Due to the camera’s tendency to underexpose, colour can seem a touch flat on first glance but, once again, this is something quite easily corrected in post-production.
Sharpness And Detail
Thanks to the increase in the resolution of the sensor, the GX-20 is capable of capturing a large amount of fine detail allowing cropping without losing too much of the image. Said detail is generally preserved well throughout the frame, with sharpness maintained towards the edges of the frame, and on the whole sharpness is pleasing throughout the shot.
Value for Money
When considering whether or not the GX-20 is good value for money, it pays to bear in mind both the strength of the specification with regards to its competitors, and the price and specification with which its predecessor launched. When the GX-10 hit the shelf back at the start of 2008, you would have had to part with around £650 to pick up the body-only package, and then a touch more for the body and kit lens. When you consider the kind of build quality that the GX-10 delivered compared against its competition, it is fair comment to say that it was good value.
Samsung has now improved the sensor so much that it now reaches the kind of pixel count that enthusiasts demand for large-scale reproductions. This, coupled with the aforementioned build quality and weather sealing, mean that the GX-20 is a versatile prosumer proposition.
To that, add the noteworthy ease-of-use and the inclusion of an auto capture mode, extensive in-camera image editing and a remarkably customisable interface, and the GX-20 becomes a cracking bit of value for a broad range of photographic users. Having launched at a lower price than the Pentax K20D, both models are now at a similar price.
GX-20 Camera Layout
The GX-20 can be viewed as the fruit of a successful manufacturing partnership. Samsung’s electronics expertise has been coupled with Pentax’s long-standing photographic heritage to produce a camera that manages to meet a high specification while not breaking the bank.
The semi-pro/prosumer specification that made the former a hit has been bolstered with the boost in resolution of the sensor, while further interface and usability tweaks make the GX-20 easy to use. The fully weatherproofed body is a real asset, and, along with the increased resolution, mean the GX-20 would be at home with the enthusiast photographer in field or studio.