Nikon 1 V2 review

Nikon's been reinventing its 1-series of compact system camera with a whole batch of new releases of late. The Nikon 1 V2 is the top-spec model in the series which incorporates a built-in electronic viewfinder and is, on the face of it, targeted at the more enthusiast snapper. The £749 price tag would certainly suggest so.

But with its smaller-than-most 1-inch CMOS sensor can this interchangeable lens camera advance beyond its V1 predecessor, appeal to the more conventional enthusiast market and, most importantly, stand head and shoulders above the competition in the performance and image quality stakes?

Design concept

As we outlined in our initial Nikon 1 V2 hands-on in October 2012, the latest V-series is more than a simple refresh of the original V1 model.

READ: Nikon 1 V1 review

The original we found to be uninspired, further compounded by the lack of external control dials that more demanding photographers might expect. The price point, too, seemed to be at odds against the products - but that didn't slow down sales, thanks to an impressive marketing campaign that was channelled to the right target audience.

Enter the V2 and while the design has changed, the overall sentiment hasn't - we still just don't find this chunk of plastic all too inspiring. The white model we've got in for review sure does alleviate some of the more brutish edges of the black version, but it's still reminiscent of a superzoom from a few years back and the £749 asking price is steeper than even a Nikon D5200 DSLR kit.

READ: Nikon D5200 review

The V2's design, however, has developed and is definitely a step in the right direction. It adds a main mode dial to the top of the camera to quick-jump between modes and the rear button arrangement looks like a mix somewhere between compact camera and Nikon DSLR. There are now four buttons to the left of the screen, as well as a function button and d-pad on the rear. The d-pad rotates, while a second rotational dial that lips the rear of the body can also be used to adjust controls.

Such a layout makes, say, switching from aperture priority to full manual quick and easy - something that lacked in the original V1 - which we like a lot. But that's praise for something that's common in every other manufacturers' cameras - including Nikon's own DSLRs - and that should have been present from the getgo.

The rest of the new menu system, however, still feels like too much of a faff despite its improvements. Simple things like switching focus type require too much digging, while the rear function button can't be assigned to a multi-menu style as per most other compact system cameras.

There's some clear progression, it's getting there, but the V2 now feels like it's morphed somewhere between the traditional and Nikon's own quirky point of interest. It's too much on the fence; it's lost sight of whether it wants to appease advanced shooters or appeal to less initiated snappers, and so it feels somewhat conflicted.

Speed daemon

But if there's one thing the Nikon 1 V2 gets right then it's the speed. And we mean really right.

The hybrid autofocus system - which couples a 135-point contrast-detect AF system with a 73-point on-sensor phase-detection AF system - is super-fast. A half depression of the shutter and the subject whizzes into focus.

With faces around the room the face priority mode also quickly latches on too. It's impressive and, if it's not your thing and you want more control, then it can be switched off from within the menus.

Focus mode options feature single (AF-S), continuous (AF-C), AF-A which is a mix of the previous two, or manual focus. It's a shame there's no AF switch on the 10-30mm kit lens provided, as digging into the menus to adjust focus type is a nuisance that, in some respects, detracts from the camera's otherwise immense speed.

Focus points can be left to auto where the camera makes the judgements or a single spot selection can be manoeuvred around the screen for more specific tasks. The one thing we'd like to see added would be a Panasonic G-series-style "pinpoint" focus mode to offer a much finer cross-hair point which zooms right in on the action for added precision. Maybe next time?

READ: Panasonic Lumix G5 review

The V2's burst mode can capture full-resolution 14-megapixel shots at up to 15 frames per second (15fps) which is seriously fast. Coupled with the Expeed 3A processor - capable of chomping through images at 850-megapixels per second according to Nikon's specs - and the camera can easily reel off images at super speed. And then some. In our test we shot 48 raw and JPEG shots with no let up in speed whatsoever. That was 1.23GB of files snapped in around three seconds. Incredible stuff.

There are other features that make best use of this speed too. Just like the rest of the Nikon 1 range, the V2 includes Motion Snapshot and Smart Photo Selector modes. The former can shoot an "animated" still and the second will auto-select the best shots from a burst of frames, which has now been tweaked for improved performance compared to the original V1. There's also the new Slow View mode which shoots 40 shots and replays them in a slow-mo slideshow.

Multi-view

Part of the Nikon 1 V2's price premium comes from the fact that it includes a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF). Were it to have an optional EVF as some other compact system cameras do the accessory would likely cost somewhere between £150-250. It's not a cheap addition, so its presence is the pivot point of purchase. Still, the likes of the Panasonic Lumix G5 manage to undercut the V2 price by a couple of hundred pounds.

The Nikon's finder offers up a 1.44-million dot resolution that, while it sounds a lot, isn't as high resolution as some current compact system cameras out there. The Fujifilm XE-1 or similarly matched Sony NEX-6 offer yet higher resolution panels, both of which are OLED rather than LCD for lower power consumption.

READ: Hands-on: Sony NEX-6 review

Still the proof in is the use. The V2's finder is reasonable, but not the best preview experience we've seen on account of juddery, ghosting when panning. Low light also shows plenty of noise in preview. However the physical size and overall brightness make it easily usable as it stands and it will be an essential for some.

The camera's rear screen is a 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD panel that's fixed into the body. Although there's no tilt- or vari-angle bracket for those more unusual preview positions, we suspect this would haved added too much bulk to the body.

One-inch pinch

The V2's decision to opt for 14-megapixels - a higher-resolution sensor than its V1 predecessor - is an oddity because the 1-inch sensor size has less than a third of the surface area of Nikon's own APS-C sensor DSLR range, and approximately half the surface area of Micro Four Thirds sensors.

That's significant because it means individual sensor nodes - which essentially translate to individual pixels - have to be physically smaller on the sensor surface (assuming like-for-like resolution of course). And this makes the game of getting light to enter for a good, clear signal that much more tricky. As a result there needs to be more amplification to the signal which, in turn, tends to generate more visible image noise.

ISO 360, cropped image shown at 100 per cent scale

Which is exactly the case. The V2 can shoot sharp images at pace, there's no doubt about that, and while JPEG processing at higher ISO settings is rather successful, the more demanding shooter won't want the subtle level of noise that's apparent in raw files to be there. We'd say the V2 is more than a stop behind the best-in-class Micro Four Thirds system, something such as the Olympus OM-D E-M5.

READ: Olympus OM-D E-M5 review

Base level ISO 160 through to ISO 400 holds the quality, but we found even some ISO 320 sample images revealed ever so slight colour noise in shadow areas. Image noise doesn't hurtle out of control quickly, however, as even four-figure ISO shots more than held their own and JPEG processing is good where colour is concerned.

ISO 2200 image sample

The V2's raw files are also far punchier than their processed JPEG counterparts. Although grainy noise is more visible there's more detail to be had and the levels aren't as pushed as in JPEGs which gives a more casual contrast that's less flat.

Overall the V2 is a tool that can shoot great images, but the more pixel-peeping snappers out there may find it to not quite make the grade. If product size is of paramount importance then the V2's small size and proportionally smaller lenses may have some impact that makes it worth the investment - but it is with slight compromise to quality.

Verdict

The Nikon 1 V2 is an interesting concept. It attempts to right some of its predecessor's wrongs by adding a more traditional mode dial to the redesign, but the interior menu system still feels alien and can be a faff to navigate.

What the camera really gets right is speed. Autofocus is really, really fast - it wipes the face of the Canon EOS M by a country mile - and the burst mode totally knocked our socks off.

READ: Canon EOS M review

However image quality - which we'd consider among the main reasons for buying an interchangeable lens camera - won't match up to larger sensor compact system cameras. It's still fine enough - there's plenty of detail, and the 10-30mm lens is sharp - but there's just less wiggle room in those raw files compared to much of the competition. That, along with the aforementioned conflicting menu system and high price - it's more expensive than a Nikon D5200 DSLR kit - are our most notable reservations.

The V2 is a definite improvement over the V1, but the higher resolution sensor doesn't push image quality forward and the overall design of the camera ain't too pretty either. It may well flick the Vs to the more conventional compact system camera market, but this model feels half way between original and conventional. We're almost as on the fence about this one as the camera itself - there are some really great points but, ultimately, it feels somewhat conflicted and positioned against the likes of the Panasonic Lumix G5, as one example, its hard for the Nikon's price to be justified.