The world has waited a good two years and more for one of the camera “big two” to step into the market with a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. Now that Nikon has done just that with the arrival of the Nikon 1 system - and the Nikon 1 J1 and Nikon 1 V1 cameras to go with it - the big question on everyone’s lips is whether it's going to work.
The public perception for the absence of both Nikon and Canon from these middle ground machines until now has been either their reluctance to potentially cannibalise their DSLR businesses or because they’ve been sitting back to see if the whole Micro Four Thirds/NEX/NX camera systems would simply flop and disappear back from where they came. Either way, it appears that at least Nikon has decided to take what it’s calling A-CIL cameras (advanced cameras with interchangeable lenses) seriously but, according to Nikon UK product manager Simon Iddon, it’s something that the company has been on message with since well before the very first of these hybrid machines ever saw the light of day.
“We spent four years researching and working out what customers wanted and we built a camera based on that with compactness, ease of use, speed and image quality as well,” he told Pocket-lint at the London launch of the Nikon 1 system.
Compactness, ease of use and speed are certainly three of the most important facets of these hybrid-type cameras but to be able to truly combine them all with top end image quality is harder than it might seen. A sacrifice has to be made somewhere.
For truly maximal image quality, you need a DSLR-sized sensor which offers superior light sensitivity, low distortion of your pictures through noise and super narrow depth of field photography which produces beautiful areas of defocus (bokeh) in front of and behind your subject while keeping what you’re trying to capture incredibly sharp.
Indeed, it’s been the headline complaint, so far, from camera enthusiasts that the sensor in the Nikon 1 cameras has come out so small compared to its competitors in the same field. The active surface area of the so called Nikon CX size sensor is less than half that of the Micro Four Thirds system used by Panasonic and Olympus, and over three times smaller than the APS-C sensors found in the Samsung NX and Sony NEX mirrorless interchangeable lens bodies. So why is that a company, which must have factories swimming with large image sensors, has chosen to take the smaller route? The answer is that it’s in image quality where Nikon seems prepared to take the hit.
“The sensor size and megapixels [10.1MP] are specifically chosen because they’re the perfect combination to deliver everything that the customer is demanding," continued Iddon.
“I don’t think you can make a truly compact system by incorporating an APS-C sized sensor. If we included one, we’d have to have the big lenses to go with it. You could make as small a body as you like, but the lens has to be a bigger size, so it will never be a truly compact system.
“The customer is demanding portability and compactness and for us to deliver them a camera where the body will fit in the pocket but the lens requires a bag, is not something we wanted to do.”
Super short pancakes lenses aside, it’s certainly a reasonable argument to swap a degree of image quality for convenience. The key to whether that’s the right decision or not lies at the feet of just who it is that buys mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras in the first place.
Nikon’s trade off points the company’s thinking towards less of the photography enthusiast and more the parent who wants to take quick snaps and video footage of their family without any of that shutter lag and without being faced with a complex control system. Indeed there’s not hide nor hair of the manual settings on the rear of either the V1 or the J1 with the main dial only good for switching between photo and video as well as two feature modes. Instead of flexibility, Nikon has been keenest of all to push the idea of speed.
“The speed is something that no one else has been able to provide,” said Iddon describing the system's ability both to shoot 60 full, 10.1-megapixel resolution, still frames per second as well as potentially automatically focus faster than any camera in the same class. The second of these is possible owing to a hybrid AF system using either 73 or 135 focus points to take reference of the field of view and find out what it is that the user is trying to capture.
“The most important thing for us was to make it high speed with high speed focusing and that’s why we chose this format.”
On top of the speed offered from the moment you hit the trigger, both the Nikon 1 V1 and Nikon 1 J1 will start to record stills even before the shutter release is fully pressed and as you let it go as well. It's all designed so that you really do get the chance to capture just what you were after. The other hugely important consideration for this system after portability, ease of use and speed is video.
“It’s a proven statistic that people who by these A-CIL cameras utilise the movie function more than any other kind of camera customer. So, in that respect, it’s obviously a key point.
“This camera brings things that are new that other companies don’t offer. The fact that it can shoot full resolution stills at the same time as video isn’t possible on others at this level of device, and I think customers will be amazed at what these can do.”
This ability to shoot stills during video is also backed up by Nikon’s inclusion of a in-built stereo microphone for proper audio recording to match the visuals. The company’s stab at slow motion footage with 60fps capture is also a boon - even if it is with interlaced frames to achieve that high speed rather than the more purist progressive format. And again, this all plays very much into the intended market for the Nikon 1 J1 with its choice of colours, compact size, ease of use and relatively modest £549.99 body and lens price point. What’s a little harder to marry up is the positioning of the higher end £829.99 Nikon 1 V1.
Are people that would pay that much more than a top end compact - more than a Micro Four Thirds camera, twice more even than one of Nikon’s own DSLRs - really looking for something that’s chosen portability and speed over image quality?
“You have to decide what your requirement is,” is the response from Iddon.
“If what I want is quality, performance, compactness and speed, then that’s [Nikon 1] where I spend my money but, if what I want is the big size, chunky look, highest image quality and that’s my primary focus, then, of course, we’ve got a range of DSLRs that are perfect for that.”
It’s at the end of this statement where the cynical explanation might lie. The Nikon 1 system might be aiming for family use with its smaller sensor system but one of the convenient by-products is that it’s far less likely to cause any harm to the company’s DSLR sales as a result - the side of the business that has traditionally out performed Nikon’s compacts.
At the same time, it’s important to note that the criticism of image quality caused by a smaller sensor choice might well be unfounded. There’s little that can be done about depth of field loss but Nikon has done its best to support the system with not only a relatively modest megapixel count to cut down on potential noise at high ISO but also by introducing the company’s most powerful image processor to date inside the Nikon 1 cameras.
The EXPEED 3 is capable of processing 600 megapixels/second and could give a decent chance of making the most out the of that medium amount of light that the CX sensor brings in. Ultimately, we’ll have to wait until the world has had a chance to test the image quality on the Nikon 1 V1 and 1 J1 and compare it to the others in its class. While the results might not be so crucial for the lower end of the two, it could spell a serious mistake in the face of the similarly priced and critically acclaimed Sony NEX cameras, with their APS-C size sensors, if it turns out that image quality really is king for those customers at the upper end of this sector.
Of course, the tune whistled by Iddon and Nikon is upbeat and positive, confident that the company has judged it correctly.
“We spent four years looking at this - even before others came out into market - to decide what is right. Is it a DSLR in a compact body? Is it something in between? And we waited until we were comfortable, until we found something that’s completely new and not going to eat at DSLR and not eat at compacts but there for a need that’s not yet been fulfilled.”
For whether or not the company has hit that right with the Nikon 1 system, we'll have to wait and see, but there’s potentially a far bigger issue lurking round the corner. Does that give arch-rivals Canon the perfect opportunity to learn from its competitor’s mistakes?
Has Nikon called this right? Let us know what you think in the comments below.