Nikon’s new system camera is the company's first for over fifty years, since the introduction of the Nikon F no less, and as such represents a true milestone for Nikon. The fact that the new system uses a 10.1-megapixel CX sensor, a new lens mount and arguably jumps on the coattails of the Panasonic and Olympus FourThirds format compact system, is perhaps a rather big gamble. Or is it?
The new Nikon 1 system camera uses an all-new CX format CMOS sensor and is distinct from the DX (APS-C sized) and the FX (full frame 35mm) format sensors Nikon has in the shops already. Bu the V1 is a compact mirror-less system camera that has, says Nikon, ease of use, compact design and image quality at its core. There are currently two versions, this, the V1 and the lower priced and lower specified J1.
The V1's key attributes combine compact design (in either black or white livery) with what Nikon claims is the world’s fastest AF system. It works by combining phase detection AF and contrast detection AF, on the sensor, with Nikon’s new EXPEED 3 image engine that ploughs through all the data.
The V1 is a combination of ultra-fast full-resolution shooting at up to 60fps, 1080 full HD video capture with the possibility of taking full-resolution stills during HD video recording. This sits alongside two stunning slow motion modes of 400fps and 1200fps. Add in the small size and all this becomes key reasons for the CX sensor format and capping the resolution to 10.1-megapixels, which helps make all that fast speed and data processing possible.
Another key attribute Nikon wanted to ensure it had a complete grip of in the 1 system is image quality. This camera (and the J1) are the way they are purely because Nikon wanted to combine all the elements mentioned so far, in a system that delivered the best balance of image quality, speed, easy use and compact size and it seems they have largely succeeded.
Build, Style and Handling
The V1 weighs just 294g, body only and sports a large 921,000-dot, 3-inch colour screen that is superb to use in all but the brightest of conditions. It’s backed up by a superb 0.47-inch, 1.44-million dot electronic viewfinder that’s certainly one of the nicest we've used, and that, like the monitor, provides a 100 percent field of view. Meanwhile, its great 17mm eyepoint, makes it eminently useable even wearing spectacles.
Build is robust and solid although it has to be said; the rather blocky looking styling is a little uninspiring. The kit we had included the system’s 10mm F/2.8 prime lens which is sharp and very nice to use and provides the equivalent field of view as a 27mm (35mm format) lens.
The CX sensor provides just 13.2 x 8.8mm of 4/3-ratio real estate for image capturing pixels and sits behind (an effective) glass shield anti dust reduction system. As is apparent, the CX sensor is markedly smaller than that employed by the Micro FourThirds system cameras from both Olympus and Panasonic that boast larger 18 x 13.5mm-sized sensors.
That said the CX’s 2.7x field of view magnification factor means the lenses developed for the new Nikon 1 system can be very compact indeed and still provide a good range of focal lengths without the bulk. For example, the system’s 10-30mm and 30-110mm VR zoom lenses provide a range 27mm to 297mm in relatively tiny optics. And so while size of the sensor and the magnification factor raised our eyebrows, it does not necessarily represent a drawback given the system’s primary ethos.
In terms of control, the top plate has three buttons, a shutter, a video capture and a square on/off switch, all to the right of the EVF. To the EVF’s left there’s a cover over the camera’s accessory hot shoe for accessories that include a neat new SB N5 Speedlight, a clever ME-1 microphone and an accessory GPS unit (the GP-N100) among others.
And it is in this respect that you realise how serious Nikon is about the new system. There’s already a relatively mature set of accessories, including the lenses mentioned above but additionally there’s a 10-100mm Nikkor VR PD-Zoom (power zoom) lens in the wings as well. An F-Mount adapter is also available so you can take advantage of any existing F-mount lenses you may have to hand, which broadens the appeal still further Although, using F-series lenses here makes the camera much clunker than perhaps it would otherwise be.
It’s worth noting the V1 lacks a built in flash unit (the J1 has a funky periscope flash system built in) and it also has rather unflattering camera strap lugs that seem to hark back to the 1970s. But when you get to the camera’s back plate we find the large screen and a smattering of camera controls that include the mode dial with just four settings, which firmly brings us back up-to-date in terms of design and functions.
The first mode dial position is for motion snapshot, a clever new feature that allows you to shoot a series of images with a slice of slow motion video sandwiched in between. It's fun and great for use played back on computer and online but is less useful for printing.
The next setting on the mode dial is the smart photo selector, a mode that automatically picks the “right” mode for the scene in front of the lens, and it gets this right, with macro, portrait, landscape all being chosen well. However, if in doubt, the cameras defaults to an auto mode so it still can hedge its bets.
Images and video are all stored onto the camera’s SD/SDHC/SDXC storage that sits under a flap on the camera base alongside the battery which disappointingly is only really good for about 300-shots.
Motion snapshot was great for snapping fleeting action, candid portraits of children for example. It's also good where you're just trying to get a snap, but to have little time to set up. This works because the camera starts capturing frames before you fully depress the shutter button, as well as capturing frames after the shutter button has been pressed. This all helps you to get a great shot.
Next up is the still image position, which as the name suggests is for ‘normal’ stills capture. The video capture position allows you to get into HD video and the two slow motion capture settings. The latter are accessed via the function button that sits above a small, rubberised grip pad adjacent the mode dial.
Functions, Menus and More
The Function button has different contextual menus for each mode. In still image capture you can choose between the electronic, electronic “Hi” and mechanical shutter modes. The two electronic shutter modes bring faster shutter speeds into play for more flexibility in a variety of shooting. However, it has a drawback in that using the electronic Hi setting you cannot change drive modes or access other features such as the AF/AE-Lock features, which is a shame.
In smart photo selector shooting there’s no additional features in the Function button menus. But in Motion Snapshot, you can apply four audio “themes” to the captured images and video, which include Beauty, Waves, Relaxation and Tenderness. Next to the Function button there’s a rather small and fiddly playback zoom button that magnifies images in playback or allows you to view thumbnails in grids of four, nine, 72 and calendar date options. The latter option is actually really rather helpful.
The lower half of the back plate control panel provides you with a rotating dial for fast scrolling of images in playback and scrolling menus options. It also tilts to activate the self timer/remote control modes, the auto exposure and auto focus lock system, the exposure compensation control and/or choose an AF mode.
The latter allows you to pick between continuous and single shot AF modes or the rather funky AF area mode that allows you to move a single AF point around the entire screen. With this, you can use any one of the 141 AF points available, great for macro when on a tripod, for example. There are 41 AF zones that can be employed in “normal” shooting that camera can choose for you. You can also override or use in combination with Face detection AF. Additionally you can choose to use a single, central AF point if all that other flexibility still fails to cut the metaphorical mustard.
Four further controls provide playback of shot footage or images, direct deletion of stored files, a display toggle button that switches from off, and basic to full data views. Similarly in playback, the display button will show images either uncluttered by any EXIF info, or with basic data or a combination of all the data, with a smaller thumb of the image plus a histogram.
The last button is the menu display button. It is here that the meat of this cameras controls reside, and to an extent it’s a rather frustrating experience because while the camera provides a point and shoot experience, albeit but one with a lot of fun and panache, the manual controls and other features are all hidden inside the menus.
Thankfully, the menus are simple to use having just three main pages, one each for playback, capture and settings. In each you get a clean scrollable series of options depending on the mode the camera is in providing full access to control over the manual shooting options, ISO settings, image quality and shutter type.
Other functions provide ways to adjust metering and white balance, image quality and resolution or RAW and JPEG capture (or both at the same time). You can choose to use Nikon’s Active D-Lighting system; incidentally it is just as accomplished here as on the V1’s larger DX and FX brethren, or there’s a interval timer option among other controls.
In playback you can choose to rate or protect images, apply D-Lighting retrospectively to shots or turn off the “rotate tall” command that otherwise spins images shot in the upright format.
In the Settings section, denoted by a spanner icon, you can get detailed information on the battery, time zone adjustments, HDMI device control for direct output of images in the camera through a complaint HD TV and apply flicker reduction to either 50Hz or 60Hz settings.
But because the manual control options are all within menus, it’s sometimes frustrating. While the camera’s ease of use is ideal for snappers out there, anyone that wants to use it in a more serious way, which in terms of performance it is perfectly capable of, will find all the control elements will necessitate frequent revisiting of the menus.
Focus and Metering
Nikon has made much of the system’s hybrid focusing system and its speed. And it is, indeed, very fast. Interestingly, while using the camera, the speed is not immediately obvious whether the focus speed is, well, faster than other camera or not. But once you start shooting fast moving subjects or subjects moving across, or towards, the camera you quickly realise that there are not many missed opportunities due to focus errors. The dual-phase and contrast detection AF systems, incidentally both housed within the sensor, work very well indeed.
The TTL metering system is also sensor-based and uses the usual matrix, centre-weighted and spot modes that provide a great balance for most shots. I found the matrix system struggled in some of the flat lighting, underexposing too often while the centre-weighted option was about the best balance overall for how I used the camera and my subjects. Spot metering uses a 2mm central circle of the selected AF zone, but given the size of the sensor I found the spot to be too large for very fine control of the point you wish to meter from.
Image and Video Quality
With such a relatively small sensor, the choice Nikon made to keep the resolution to the 10-megapixel mark was a good one. This is obvious both in terms of the speed the camera’s performance and in terms of image noise issues.
The all-new CX CMOS sensor surely benefits from everything Nikon has learnt from its FX and DX sensor cameras, so even shooting at the top sensitivity setting of 3200, noise is very well controlled but at the expense of significant amounts of detail. Meanwhile the RAWs reveal more detail but noise too, so shooting at ISO 3200 should be considered a setting of last resort.
However, up to ISO 800 shots are remarkably clean and detailed with ISO 1600 shots only slightly less so. Metering is good overall, but the spot metering zone is a little too big for precise control. In terms of the white balance control, things look very good indeed, with mixed lighting being handled well and the neon lights of Shanghai city’s skyline proving no real problem.
Detail is good and all the lenses we tested, all proving suitably sharp, with JPEGs looking slightly softer than we'd like by default, as do images taken at the full zoom end of the 30-110mm lens.
Some astute sharpening in software helps out here. Colour reproduction tends to be muted in the “standard” setting with vivid providing a bit more punch; the one major problem we did find was with bright point highlights, which bleached out any detail very quickly indeed – even when using the D-Lighting system pre and post shooting.
As for the HD video capture, the moving image is detailed and sharp though rather jerky in playback although the built-in microphones are not going to be ideal if you have a top notch surround sound system. They do pick up loads of wind noise, but are otherwise adequate.
The 400fps five-second slow motion mode provides video with 640x240-pixels and is gives a wonderful ethereal quality with an almost 3D feel. The resolution means it’s only really large enough for use on a computer screen. However, it’s fun and offers an entirely new perspective on action shots.
Ditto the 1200fps video mode. Here resolution drops to just 320x120-pixels and so lacks detail and true finesse, and yet seeing action at such slow speeds is nevertheless quite mesmerizing.
In terms of sharpness, the fast focusing system does its job in brighter conditions where the V1 will easily hold its own with larger DSLRs, even ones from Nikon. However, in lower light the performance can become more hit and miss.
Given Nikon’s stated aims however, and the type of user this system is designed for, the image and video quality is more than adequate and can be simply superb in favorable conditions.
The Nikon 1 V1 is a remarkably adept point and shoot system camera that truly befits Nikon’s stated aim of providing an easy to use, quality compact system camera. It represents a truly bold and brave step by Nikon into the compact, mirrorless system camera market. However, there’s an elephant in the room and it’s a whopper. The price.
At an eye-watering £829 for the 10-30mm zoom lens kit and £979 for the dual lens outfit, these are prices that put this system camera firmly in the realm of larger digital SLR cameras including many of Nikon’s own models.
This price seems to be at least a £150 over the odds for the 10-30mm zoom kit and nearer £200 for the dual lens outfit. But given this is a camera designed for those wanting a more compact quality system camera they’ll wonder however, why there’s such a large premium for the privilege?
Having said that, what the camera is designed to do it does well. And while the styling is a tad uninspiring, the build cannot be faulted and neither can the ease of use. While this might not be a camera for the full-on enthusiasts out there, it’s a viable if pricey alternative to the larger cameras, and of course the other compact system cameras from Olympus and Panasonic. It is, therefore, ideal for those who want system camera quality in a much smaller package.
Additional product photos by Chris Hall.
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