Count me among those who were less than overwhelmed by Nikon’s “big” announcement of its small interchangeable lens camera, the Nikon 1 system. For years, many Nikon enthusiasts, myself included, have wanted a small camera that delivered great image quality and high performance. The consensus was that if Nikon built a compact, mirrorless camera based on one of its APS-C sensors, they’d have a real competitor for the Leica and Micro Four-Thirds system cameras out there. Instead, it seems that Nikon chose to go the other direction by giving us a new format, CX, with a sensor size of 13.2mm x 8.8mm and 10.1 megapixels. CX is smaller than APS-C and M4/3. In fact, it has a “crop factor” of 2.7x. Nikon touted this camera as a fast performing alternative to a traditional point and shoot camera with a good set of lenses and accessories to support it.
It’s at this point in the story where you have to remember how Nikon engineering works. They decide who the product is targeted to, and design it to that perceived market. So to all of us who are in the pro/advanced DSLR camp, the Nikon 1 system seemed like a disappointment. After all, we’re the ones using our DSLRs in near darkness. And while we may be disappointed that the Nikon 1 system wasn’t going to be the APS-C based walkabout camera we wanted it to be, we need to consider the actual intended target market for this camera: people who want a small, compact camera that is responsive and produces good images in most conditions. In other words, families.
It is in this light that I’m going to review the Nikon 1 V1. I have a Coolpix P7000, and while I like it in general, it still frustrates me at times. It does not focus fast enough for any kind of action shots, and the tiny sensor makes noise reduction a must at just about any ISO. Moreover, the Coolpix P7000 only produces an 8-bit NRW format RAW file, which isn’t as good as the 12-bit NEFs my DSLRs generate.
I bought my Nikon 1 V1 after a lengthy conversation with a colleague, who had recently tested one in Africa. He, too, has a Coolpix P7000 and a Canon G12, and he said that after using the V1, he’ll never touch either of those cameras again. I had a family trip to Disneyland coming up, and I wanted to get good shots but also travel light. I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to test the V1, so I went ahead and bought one from B&H, along with three lenses, the 10mm f/2.8 “pancake,” the 10-30mm VR zoom, and the 30-110mm VR zoom. I also picked up the accessory Speedlight, SB-N5.
The first thing I noticed about the V1 was its diminutive size. With the 10mm pancake lens attached, it really isn’t any larger than my P7000. The two zoom lenses are very small, but certainly larger than any traditional zoom point and shoot. However, I’m guessing that an APS-C based design would be significantly larger than the V1, which can fit into a large coat pocket without much trouble. When you remove a lens from the V1, you’ll see the image sensor exposed. This is due to the mirrorless design of the camera.
Controls and Settings
After I charged up the EN-EL 15 battery (the same Li-ion battery used by the Nikon D7000 DSLR), I familiarized myself with the camera’s controls. Because the V1 is designed with the “casual” user in mind, The rear control dials only offer access to a few settings. The other settings are in the software menus. The top of the camera has two buttons: a dedicated still image shutter release and a dedicated video mode shutter release (with a red dot on it). At first, this arrangement takes getting used to, but the idea is that you can capture a still or a video regardless of whether the camera is set to still mode or video mode, just by using the alternate release button. If you toggle shooting this way, you won’t get the same image or video quality options as you will when in a dedicated shooting mode. In Video Capture mode, you can capture 1080/60i video (using the video button) or grab JPEG stills with a 16:9 aspect ratio with the standard shutter button. In Still Image mode, you’ll be limited to shooting video at 1072×720 resolution.
Next to the electronic viewfinder window, there is a small button, marked “F.” This is the function button. Depending on the camera shooting mode, you’ll have the ability to quickly change settings for that shooting mode. For example, the F button lets you choose between the mechanical and electronic shutter, or between standard HD or high-speed slow-motion video. You can also use the “F” button to modify the aperture setting of the camera while in Program Auto Exposure mode. Next to the “F” button, you’ll find a toggle switch that is used to control various aspects of shutter speed or aperture in still image mode, or to zoom in/out of images during playback and review.
The “main” command dial is the camera shooting mode selector. Here you can choose between one of four shooting modes:
- Still Images
- Still Image with Smart Photo Selector
- Motion Snapshot
Still Image Mode
In Still Image Mode, you can shoot 12-bit NEFs at 5 frames per-second. You can also shoot JPEG and JPEG+NEF. If you go into the menus, you’ll be able to change exposure modes, metering modes, and AF modes. By default, the camera is set to use the Auto Scene Selector as the exposure mode. You can also choose from one of six Nikon Picture Controls (Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, and Landscape) as a way of modifying the color, contrast, and sharpness of your images. If you shoot RAW, this is no big deal, but Picture Controls are quite useful for those who shoot exclusively JPEG to dial in settings that give them the look they desire.
In Movie Mode, you can capture HD video in three different resolutions:
- 1920 x 1080/60i (59.94 fields/sec)
- 1920 x 1080/ 30p (30 fps)
- 1280 x 720/ 60p (60 fps)
Alternatively, you can capture lower-resolution clips of slow motion video at either 400 fps or 1200 fps. In slow-motion movie mode, you’re limited to 5-second clips. To me, this is really cool… in 2001 our lab spent nearly $15,000 on a high-speed (500fps) black & white video camera. Today, I could do the same thing for under $1000 and in color!
With the dual shutter release buttons on the V1, it is possible to take still images (jpg) as you are simultaneously shooting video… that’s pretty cool!
The other two modes on the dial are somewhat gimmicky, but they can be useful for casual shooters who don’t want to do much thinking around the camera or are looking for other creative outlets.
Still Image Mode with Best Shot Selector
In this mode, the camera starts buffering pictures before you fully depress the shutter release button, and will also capture images after the shutter release button is pressed. After capture, the camera finds five images and chooses the “best” one. The concept here is that if you’re shooting kids, the camera will choose the image where everyone is actually smiling. Once you’ve captured these images, you can browse the other four images in the “best shot” sequence, and manually pick out a different shot as the “best.” You can then choose to keep all the images (default), or delete all but the best shot. Frankly, I don’t see myself using this mode much, but as the father of a four-year old, I can certainly understand why casual shooters might appreciate this function.
Motion Snapshot Mode
A “motion snapshot” is actually a movie file. Images captured in this mode are saved as .mov movies. You can also choose between four different background sounds to add to the movie clip. In this mode, you produce a slow-motion video that ends in a still image. Again, this isn’t something that I find myself doing a lot, but it does add a little creative flavor to those tender moments, if you want to have a little fun. Strangely enough, the audio tracks aren’t saved with your motion snapshot upon importing the movie file to your computer (Update 12/29: you can access the audio if you use View NX2 to preview your Motion Snapshots. You can then convert them to standard .mov video files.)
The last external control is the Multi-selector dial and button. Here is where you can set the following functions:
- AF servo mode (auto, single, continuous, or manual)
- Exposure Compensation
The camera also has four other buttons on the rear panel:
- Disp (sets LCD display mode)
- Delete (trash)
The remaining settings in the Nikon 1 V1 must be set from within the software menus. Things like spot metering, ISO settings, and flash exposure compensation are not accessible externally. This, of course, is exactly how Nikon designs the majority of their compact point and shoot cameras, so it isn’t entirely a surprise. However, I’d much prefer more external controls, especially a “PASM” dial to quickly change between exposure modes on the fly.
I’m guessing that most of you have skipped right to this section, so I’ll discuss the performance of the Nikon 1 V1 across several criteria:
- Autofocus Performance and Frame Rate
- Mechanical vs. Electronic Shutter
- Image Quality (including ISO and Auto WB)
- Ergonomics and handling
Autofocus Performance and Shooting Speed
For me, one of the biggest gripes I have with any point and shoot camera is that they are slow. Nikon’s Coolpix line are notoriously slow. They don’t focus quickly, especially in low light, and they capture images after a dreaded “shutter lag” unless you’ve got focus perfectly locked. In other words, using a traditional point and shoot camera is a perfect recipe for missing shots.
Autofocus and shooting performance on the V1 are absolutely stellar. Make no bones about it; I use a Nikon D3s and when it comes to getting sharp shots of moving subjects, the V1 absolutely holds its own. Focus is fast, even in dim light, and the built-in illuminator helps when needed. There is essentially no shutter lag with this camera, either! Moreover, I can set the camera to continuous frame advance and fire off a continuous burst of NEFs for as long as I want to hold down the shutter release! The V1 has a generous buffer, which when coupled with a fast (30 MB/s Class 10) SD memory card, is hard to fill.
Here’s a six-shot continuous sequence at 5fps with the Nikon 1 V1 and 30-110mm zoom lens (click to enlarge):
Face-Priority and Subject Tracking AF
The V1, like some of Nikon’s Coolpix cameras, offers two forms of “intelligent” AF selection. The first mode is face-priority AF. In my tests, I found that the V1 recognizes faces in a scene nearly instantly, even if the person is in profile. For 99% of family shooting, I’d recommend using this feature. As a test, I let my four-year old son take my photo with the V1. The face-priority focus nailed it.
I also tested the “Subject Tracking” mode of the AF system in the V1, and I found that it works pretty well. It uses color and contrast cues to follow a subject of your choosing around the frame. This mode can help in situations where you want to keep the same relative camera framing while allowing your subject to move about the scene. You can also use this mode to recompose with portraits, but I think face-priority AF is a better choice in those situations.
Overall, I’m extremely impressed with the speed and performance of the Nikon 1 V1. In fact, I’d wager that if a compact camera could keep up with sports, this would be it.
Mechanical vs. Electronic Shutter
The Nikon V1 differs from the lower-end J1 in that it has a mechanical shutter. You have the option of using either the mechanical shutter or the electronic shutter as follows:
- Electronic (standard)
- Electronic (high-speed)
What’s the difference between these modes? With the mechanical and standard electronic shutter, you’ll be limited to a maximum shooting rate of 5 fps. In high-speed electronic shutter mode, you can shoot 10, 30 or even 60 fps. The mechanical shutter produces an audible sound when the camera captures an image, while the electronic shutter does not (you can set the camera to make a faux shutter sound if you prefer). The biggest advantage of the mechanical shutter is that it will sync with the SB-N5 speedlight at 1/250s, while the electronic shutter can only sync at 1/60s. The advantages of the standard electronic shutter is that it is silent, and that it allows for a fastest shutter speed of 1/16,000s (compared to 1/4000s with the mechanical shutter). That could be very useful at golf tournaments! The high-speed electronic shutter is interesting, but it does come with some limitations. Face-detection AF is disabled when you use the high-speed electronic shutter. In addition, if you set the frame rate to 30fps or higher, focus and exposure are locked based on the initial frame in your image series. For me, I tend to like the reassuring “click” produced by the mechanical shutter, but its nice to have the option of the silent shutter, too.
The big question surrounding the Nikon 1 series cameras ever since they were announced centered on image quality. Because the CX sensor is small, one would expect noise to play a factor in image quality. Indeed, by default, NR kicks in even at fairly low ISO settings on the V1; you can disable NR either in the camera or in RAW images. The V1 has an ISO range of 100-3200, and an optional Hi-1 (6400 equivalent) setting. In my subjective testing, I found that noise, although present, is extremely well controlled through ISO 800, and image quality is still perfectly good enough for most uses above that. At 1600 ISO and above, you can see a reduction in color saturation in your images. Subjectively, I find that the Nikon 1 V1 performs at least as well at ISO 800 as my APS-C D2Xs did. And unlike the D2Xs, I can shoot above ISO 800 and still get very useable images. I made an 11×14” print of a cropped image shot at ISO 800 with NR off, and it looked great.
For outdoor shooting without a flash, I won’t hesitate to set the V1 on its full auto-ISO range (100-3200). Why? Because the kinds of shooting I’m most likely do do with the V1 aren’t going to be made into 24×36” prints. For images viewed on a computer monitor 800 pixels wide, even ISO 3200 images look great! And frankly, how many of us blow up our vacation snapshots to anything larger than 8×10”? In fact, how many prints do we even make these days, given the fact that we’re probably going to share our images on Flickr, Facebook, Google+, or via email anyway? Face it, noise is only a problem if you notice it, and in most of the images from the V1 at typical viewing sizes, you’re not going to notice it as a big issue. See my separate analysis on V1 noise here.
For flash shots, I recommend using a fixed ISO setting, as otherwise the camera tries to expose for the dark scene and use the flash unit as fill. You’ll have a lot of ISO 3200 shots with flash if you don’t change to a fixed ISO or reduce the ISO range.
The other aspect of image quality and sensor size has to do with the lenses. Unfortunately, because the CX sensor is small, and the current lineup of 1-series lenses isn’t very fast (the 10mm pancake is the fastest at f/2.8), you aren’t going to get the kind of subject isolation that’s possible with larger format cameras. Since Nikon refers to the 1-series cameras as part of a “system,” it remains to be seen what new 1-series lenses are offered in the future. One option that I look forward to trying is using F-mount Nikkor lenses on the V1 with the Nikon FT-1 adapter. My 50mm f/1.4 AFS G lens effectively becomes a 135mm portrait lens!
I found myself using auto WB most of the time with the V1. Like most Nikons, it works very well in outdoor scenes, and less well under artificial lighting. There is a preset WB option where you can photograph a gray or white subject and the camera will create a manual preset. Unfortunately, you’re limited to using one manual preset at a time; there’s no way to store different presets. Of course, if you shoot NEF (RAW), you can change the WB after the fact in your image conversion software.
Ergonomics and handling
Nikon is well-known for producing cameras with solid ergonomic design. The V1 is solid, and feels good in the hand. Unfortunately, the Mode Dial falls directly underneath your thumb, and it is easily bumped from its setting. I’m developing the habit of always checking the Mode Dial when I turn on the camera, because chances are it’s moved from where I thought I left it. Another minor nit is that the hot-shoe accessory cover is easily dislodged. Put it in a safe place if you remove it.
The electronic viewfinder has a “proximity” sensor that detects when you place your face to the camera. When activated, the rear LCD turns off and the internal viewfinder switches on. Most of the time, this works fine, but I did find myself in a situation where the sun was directly behind me and the electronic viewfinder would kick in when my shadow fell across the V1 proximity sensor. The electronic viewfinder has a separate brightness setting from the rear LCD panel, and it displays the same shooting information as the rear panel. Using the electronic viewfinder is beneficial in situations where you want better camera support (like tracking action with the 30-110mm lens). One minor nit: there is no way to disable image playback review in the electronic viewfinder. A workaround is to quickly half-press the shutter button after shooting an image sequence.
While I do wish the V1 had a built-in flash of some kind, the SB-N5 speedlight is an excellent accessory. It has bounce/swivel functions and a dedicated AF-assist lamp that can also be used for lighting short video clips. What’s really nice about the SB-N5 is that it draws its power from the built-in EN-EL 15 battery, which is not only convenient but also keeps weight to a minimum.
Speaking of the battery, I captured over 400 RAW images plus several video clips on my V1 and the battery meter read 25%. For most people, you’ll be able to shoot for an entire day (or more) on a single charge. The included battery charger is small and has a short “stub plug” adapter that has a 90° hinge for using directly in power sockets without extra cables.
It is clear that Nikon built the 1-system cameras for a user base who wants a very compact camera but is frustrated with the sluggish performance of traditional digital point and shoot models. Depending on where you’re coming from, the 1-system is either a huge step up in point and shoot quality (much larger sensor and near instantaneous responsiveness) or a step down in quality from DSLRs with their astronomical ISO performance and options for shallow depth of field. I made the conscious decision to treat the V1 as a compact point and shoot camera, and as such I’m incredibly pleased. In the past, I’ve had to trade responsiveness with size and user-friendliness. Whenever I’d go on a family trip, I had to ask myself, “do I want to lug the DSLR and lenses, or do I want to bring the slow but small Coolpix.” Now, it’s a much easier decision for me. While I’m not going to get DSLR-quality images from the V1, I’m using it in situations where a DSLR would be overkill or my Coolpix would miss shots. I can get far better images with the V1 than any point and shoot I’ve tried, and the bulk of these images are not the kinds of things I’d be printing at large sizes, anyway. I walked around Disneyland for three days with my entire V1 kit in a small waist pouch… and I didn’t miss any shots as a result of the camera failing to focus or fire. As with all things, expectation management is a must. If you’re looking for a camera to use on a family vacation, to take photos of your kids’ soccer games, and to be able to hand it to a friend or relative to get a photo of yourself, then the V1 is absolutely wonderful.
Nikon 1 V1: Summary
Street price: $896.95 with 10-30mm VR zoom lens
- Very fast autofocus performance and tracking
- Huge buffer even shooting RAW
- Excellent image quality through ISO 800, very good image quality above 800 for most situations
- Excellent battery life
- 1080p video and quick toggling between video/still modes
- Slow-motion video option is really fun
- Small and unobtrusive; the entire kit with flash fits in my Think Tank Skin Chimp Cage
- Firmware version 1.1 adds a hot-pixel mapping function
- Program auto mode often allows shutter speeds that are too slow (1/15s)
- No individual scene modes (Auto scene select only)
- No auto exposure bracketing mode for HDR, etc.
- Mode dial is too easy to jostle
- No PASM control dial on camera body
- Accessory shoe cover could be easily lost
- Proximity sensor for EVF can be fooled in bright light
- Lack of built-in flash