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This 1's a winner
The Nikon 1 V1 bucked conventional wisdom. By introducing a smaller-sensor interchangeable-lens compact camera, Nikon may have caused controversy, but it gave them the opportunity to design an entirely new system from the ground up. Let's see how it worked out for them.
The Nikon 1 V1 with the Nikon 1 Nikkor 10mm f/2.8 pancake lens attached, along with the other available lenses, the 10-30mm VR Zoom (only available in a kit) and 30-110mm VR Zoom. There's also a 10-100mm superzoom available.
- 10MP, 8.8 x 13.2mm CMOS sensor
- ISO range 100-3200, boostable to 6400
- Mechanical and electronic shutter release
- Shutter speeds 1/16000 – 30 sec
- Up to 34fps burst rate
- Nikon CX lens mount
- 921k pixel LCD monitor
- 1.44 million pixel EVF
- 135 autofocus points
- Full 1080p HD Video
- Simultaneous still & movie recording
One of the most controversial new product announcements of the last year was the Nikon 1 system. Nikon purists, many of whom were expecting something compatible with Nikon's historic line of F-mount lenses (perhaps even a rangefinder-like competitor to the venerable Leica M9), were outraged. How dare Nikon introduce a new line of cameras with an entirely new and incompatible lensmount—and a significantly smaller sensor—as their long-anticipated entry into the Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Compact camera competition? In this Nikon 1 V1 review, we'll see if Nikon made a good call.
Sensor comparison: The Nikon 1 V1 sensor size compared with the Olympus E-PM1's Micro Four Thirds sensor. It's somewhat smaller, and has a 2.7x crop factor (a 10mm lens covers the same angle of view as a 27mm lens on a 35mm camera, for example) vs. the Micro Four Thirds' 2x crop factor. How does the image quality provided by these two sensors compare? See below!
If the Nikon 1 V1 had been introduced by any other camera manufacturer, I believe it would have been rightly hailed as a tour du force of technological advancement and, notwithstanding the dashed expectations and protests of the jilted Nikon DSLR faithful, I will herein lay out the reasons why this camera is indeed an impressive, if in some areas flawed, picture-taking machine that fills the needs of sophisticated snapshooters and hobbyists who want to downsize. I also believe that this camera has the potential to get the attention of an entirely new market segment without cannibalizing Nikon's DSLR sales. So from a marketing point of view, it was a logical move for Nikon.
But what about consumers? I you're looking for a relatively small and light interchangeable lens camera that's easy to use and takes Nikon F-mount cameras, look no further than the Nikon D3100, or Nikon D5100. Both are excellent cameras, and are reasonably priced. They're not MILCs, but they are great cameras for quality-conscious photographers who are learning their way up the photographic food chain. But if you're looking for a smaller camera body and a set of smaller lenses that can rival (or even beat) many DSLRs in the autofocusing department, and is about a dead heat when it comes to many other features, it's time to get acquainted with the Nikon V1.
In the hands
The Nikon 1 V1 has a sturdy, well-built feel to it, thanks to its magnesium-alloy construction. It is larger and better-built than the J1. Despite the presence of an eye-level, high-resolution, 1.44 million dot electronic viewfinder (a key feature the J1 lacks), it is somewhat smaller if not lighter than other EVF mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras. Nikon chose to forego the traditional hot shoe in exchange for a new hot shoe for which there's one flash—the Nikon SB-N5 Speedlight, a specially-designed flash unit that fits snugly around the left side and EVF housing and matches the V1's minimalist design. You can add the Nikon AS-N1000 Multi-Accessory Port Adapter, which lets you add shoe-mount accessories.
The minimalist top plate also includes an on/off button, a shutter release, and a video button. A unique feature of the Nikon 1 V1 and Nikon 1 J1 is that you can simultaneously shoot video and stills using these two buttons.
The back of the camera is dominated by the 3-inch LCD monitor (not flip-out), an “F” button that is assigned different features depending on the settings you're in, an up/down switch that is used to zoom in on preview images and can set focus, aperture, and/or shutter speed, depending on exposure mode. A dial lets you switch from movie (choose HD or slow-motion) to still image, smart photo selector (which automatically shoots multiple images and chooses the best of the bunch), and motion snapshot, a new feature that combines short video clips, a still image, and musical themes. I can't imagine too many people will find much use for this setting and wonder why it was given such prominence.
An array of buttons to the right of the LCD lets you control the camera's key features. DISP controls the LCD/EVF display (lots of info on-screen, minimal info, or no image); The preview button lets you view images and videos; the garbage can is of course your delete button, and the menu button opens the camera's menu, which you can navigate via the four-way toggle switch in the center.
Nikon placed controls that are more snapshooter-friendly on the camera surface while nestling more sophisticated controls—such as Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture-Priority and Manual exposure modes, choice of electronic or mechanical shutter, ISO settings and noise reduction—in the menu structure. More experienced photographers might grumble about having to burrow through the menus to change from P to M, but it's clear Nikon is targeting users who will most likely keep the camera on the default setting—Scene Auto Selector—and let the camera do the thinking while they concentrate on the content of their photographs.
The EN-EL1 Li-ion battery is one of the largest and heaviest I've seen for a MILC, but the payoff is a claimed 400 shots per recharge, which is good longevity. In my experience spending a day with this camera shooting over 300 images and videos and chimping like crazy, the battery was still going strong and indicated a full charge, even by the end of the day.
By default, the 3-inch LCD monitor is always on, but when you bring it to your eye, a proximity sensor automatically switches off the LCD and turns on the eye-level EVF finder. I wish Nikon had added the option to turn off the LCD and only run the EVF finder and hope this will be added in a firmware update, because the roughly half-second lag from the moment you lift the camera to your eye until the image appears means you're shooting blind. You can set the DISP button to turn of the LCD, which saves battery life, but this does not mean the EVF is on unless it is up to your face or you put your finger over the proximity sensor.
In the field
I did most of my shooting with the Nikon 1 V1 in its default, snapshooter-friendly Scene Auto Selector mode because that's probably going to be its most-used setting, and I wanted to see how good it could be on autopilot. It nailed just about every exposure situation I threw at it, even in tricky lighting (such as heavily backlit scenes). I almost never felt the need to override its choices.
The electronic viewfinder, with its high resolution, provided a clear image with no jumpiness. Likewise, the LCD monitor provided a sharp, clear image with good contrast. Image quality in direct sunlight was pretty good; while you couldn't see fine details, the images were bright enough that you could easily compose and check exposure (but in bright sunlight you'll probably prefer using the EVF).
Going off auto was a bit more of a challenge, although after a few minutes' practice I was able to quickly access exposure modes, focus modes, and more. One of the unique features, the ability to shoot stills while shooting videos, worked well, although with a few caveats: First, the aspect ratio changed from 3:2 to 9:16 for both video and still image capture when shooting both at the same time. The still images captured during video measure 3840x2160 pixels, versus 3872x2592 pixels when shooting in standard still capture mode so they're essentially high-res. One disadvantage is that any manual exposure settings are lost when shooting stills during video. In the sample shots below, I ended up with blur as the images were shot under thick clouds and the camera biased towards a slower shutter speed.
I challenged the camera by doing street photography, and there's where I found the camera's greatest fault: When I lifted the camera to my eye to compose a photo at eye-level, the camera momentarily locked up as the image switched from the LCD to the EVF monitor. For around a half second after I lifted the camera to my eye, I was essentially blind, and missed shots as a result. Nikon needs to offer an “EVF On” override option in a future firmware update to eliminate this problem.
When shooting with the camera up to my eye, however, exposure and focus were quickly achieved, making this a good action camera. I wouldn't recommend it for street photography at this time, however, due to the hesitation turning on the EVF.
The Nikon 1 V1 comes in several bundle options, including the 10-30mm lens, as well as a bundle with that and the 30-110mm lens. It can also be packaged with the 10mm pancake lens. Focus and aperture are controlled from the camera so there are no focusing or aperture rings. The only movable part is the zoom ring (on the 10mm pancake lens, there are no moving rings).
First, let's talk about the Nikon 1 V1's autofocus. It is fast, acquiring focus within a fraction of a second. Likewise I found exposure to be on-target most of the time, even in difficult lighting. For most users, lag time is so minimal that it should not affect most typical snapshot situations. The only time you may notice it is when shooting action. Pre-setting exposure and choosing either manual focus or AF-A mode should fix this.
The only drag on the V1's performance was, as I mentioned before, the sluggish viewfinder, which freezes the shutter release during the roughly half-second that it takes for the EVF to turn on.
I found that the Nikon 1 V1 could handle a wide range of exposure situations well. For example, when I included mostly sky in an image, the subject matter towards the bottom of the image was properly exposed, so the meter wasn't misled into underexposing the scene. For less sophisticated photographers who may not know or want to deal with manual exposure overrides, this is a valuable asset.
Lab test results provided by DxOMark Labs; used with their permission.
Overall: Good 54
Color Depth: Excellent 21.3 bits
Dynamic Range: Very Good 11 EVs
Low-Light ISO: Average ISO 400
Actual ISO was consistently around 1/3 stop slower than the indicated speed. Signal-noise ratio started at 36.4dB, and stayed above 30 dB through ISO 400, showing more noticeable grain by ISO 800 and very noticeable grain by ISO 1000.
How does the 1 V1 compare to other smaller-sensor cameras? I ran a quick comparison of the V1 to the Olympus E-P3, with its Micro Four Thirds sensor, and the Pentax Q, whose sensor is comparable to most self-contained posh compacts, such as the Canon G12. As expected, as far as low-light performance is concerned, the V1 (and, since it shares the same sensor, the J1) landed a little below the Olympus, topping out at ISO 346 (in practical terms, ISO 400) for accepable levels of noise. (The Q scored ISO 189 while the E-P3 scored ISO 536.) Nevertheless, the V1 beat both cameras' overall image quality score 54 to the E-P3's 51 and the Q's 47 thanks to a wider dynamic range and greater color depth.
100% blow-up detail shot at ISO 800, without noise supression, shows moderate noise.
100% blow-up detail shot at ISO 800, with noise supression, results in a more usable image.
The pictures I shot with noise suppression turned off confirmed the lab results; noise reduction was effective: It gave me an extra stop or two, which should be fine for most casual shooting and will allow you to shoot in lower light and I feel confident recommend shooting at ISO 800 with noise supression turned on. Color was accurate and indeed it seemed the camera was more forgiving in high-contrast shooting situations, a result of the above-average dynamic range.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Nikon went against conventional wisdom with the 1 series, but by building a system around a smaller sensor, they were able to produce more compact lenses. By limiting resolution to 10 megapixels (which is more than enough for most purposes) they were able to increase pixel size and as a result the camera delivered a wider dynamic range and color depth than other cameras in its class. It is one of the fastest-focusing cameras around, and has virtually no shutter lag, which is good news for soccer moms who want to use the camera (bundled with the long zoom lens) to shoot sports. The camera's ability to simultaneously capture stills and videos breaks new ground, although I found the Motion Snapshot mode to be somewhat superfluous.
The camera is ruggedly built but its minimalist design makes it attractive to less sophisticated users who want a high-performance camera with few bells and whistles. Another advantage? With most other MILCs, you are forced to choose between either an electronic viewfinder or an additional flash. With the 1 V1, you can get both at the same time although I question the wisdom of using a non-standard flash mount.
Nikon is clearly looking to create a new kind of market with the 1 V1 and its simpler sister camera, the Nikon 1 J1. Of the two cameras, I'd spring the extra bucks for the 1 V1 because of the EVF and stronger build. If you're looking for a small, portable camera with equally small interchangeable lenses, but don't want to compromise on speedy performance so you can catch action and videos, this camera is well worth considering.